Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

 Bambus, 1967

Palmen, 1968

 China-Bild, 1968

 The Revenge of
the Kanakas, 1988

polke in london:
a case study
by Catherine Morris
The art world's season finale takes place 
this week in London when Sotheby's and 
Christie's hold their spring sales of 
contemporary art on the evenings of June 26 
and 27. As the dealers, collectors and 
observers of the art market convene one 
last time before the summer begins, they 
will have 135 lots--ranging from Jean 
Dubuffet and Alexander Calder to Sigmar 
Polke and David Salle--to peruse, assess 
and acquire. As the names of the artists 
might imply, the sales in London, like 
those in New York, reflect the global 
character of the market for contemporary 
art. In this respect the London sales 
catalogues confirm a market hinged on a 
bevy of omnipresent figures like Warhol, 
Richter and Twombly, to name a few. 
The London catalogues also offer us New 
York readers a view of contemporary art 
which is, in many respects, distinct from 
our own. Frank Auerbach or Pierre Soulages, 
for example, are staples of the London 
auctions while their paintings come up for 
sale with much less regularity in New York. 
More important to the global market, 
however, are the market perennials: the 
artists who are the auction-house 
standards, and whose sales act as the 
barometer by which the health of the market 
is gauged. 
In reviewing the works for sale at this 
series of auctions, one of those seasoned 
artists, Sigmar Polke, has four interesting 
paintings coming to the block, two at 
Sotheby's and two at Christie's. Polke 
obviously belongs to the ranks of 
internationally recognized artists who help 
boost the frequent-flyer miles of 
collectors, dealers and curators who are 
willing to travel the world to acquire the 
right example of his work. Polke's work has 
consistently done well at auction and given 
that each of the paintings being offered is 
in good condition, this group presents an 
interesting opportunity for market 
To assess a work coming up for sale at 
auction, it is indispensable to track the 
previous sales results for the artist in 
question. As the only public source of 
information on the sale of contemporary 
art, auction results play a central role in 
any analysis of markets for specific 
artists as well as in tracking the economic 
health of the art world as a whole. 
According to an ArtNet database search of 
auction results since the spring of 1993, 
when the market is generally agreed to have 
stabilized, 13 works by Polke have been 
sold. Seven of those sold exceeded their 
high estimate. If we limit our review to 
works sold since the spring of 1994, six of 
the eight works went above their estimates 
by more than $15,000. The highest price 
paid for a Polke at auction was at 
Christie's, New York, in Nov. 1994, when 
Sommerbilder I, II, III [Summer Pictures], 
1982, sold for $486,500 (prices listed in 
ArtNet searches include the buyers 
premium). The presale estimate for the 
triptych was $300,000-$400,000. As we can 
see, Sotheby's and Christie's have good 
reason to be confident that their four 
paintings will make a good showing at their 
auctions this June.
Knowing that Polke has a strong secondary 
market is one thing. Equally important in 
valuing a painting is understanding its 
place within the artist's oeuvre. In other 
words, grasping the critical and art 
historical importance of Polke's painting 
is a first step in understanding how these 
works have been valued by the auction 
Polke first exhibited in 1963 as part of a 
group called the Capitalist Realists, which 
included his art-school cohorts Richter and 
Konrad Leug (who was later to re-emerge as 
the dealer Konrad Fischer). Conceptually, 
the three young artists were interested in 
melding two apparently opposed art forms--
the Social Realism practiced in Communist 
Europe, and the styles of the West's 
capitalist art-market system, in particular 
the newly triumphant Pop art movement. As a 
result of this interest in reviewing mass 
culture through the lens of a socially 
motivated economic critique, Polke began, 
at the inception of his career, to reject 
traditional form and content in his work. 
He substituted found items such as pre-
printed fabrics for traditional canvas 
while his chosen imagery focused on the 
popular consumer items of the newly 
prosperous German middle class. 
The earliest of the four paintings at 
auction, Bambusbild [Bamboo Picture], 
1967, is a good example of Polke's nascent 
mastery of painting on pre-printed fabrics. 
a series of works called "Stoffbilder" 
[fabric paintings]. As a subject of 
exotic consumerism, bamboo would 
become a recurring motif in Polke's 
work, imbued with the artist's 
characteristic irony. As an early example 
of Polke's esthetics, Bambusbild is an 
interesting and significant painting. It 
does not, however, fall into the category 
of being a signature work from one of 
Polke's most important periods. Its presale 
estimate is $100,000-$180,000.
The critical consensus is that Polke's 
earliest mature body of work is a large, 
loosely grouped series of paintings called 
the "Rasterbilder," or screen paintings, 
which date from the 1960s. The 
"Rasterbilder" series had its earliest 
roots in Polke's Capitalist Realism. The 
paintings reproduce images of popular 
culture via the benday dot first employed 
in painting by Roy Lichtenstein. Painted by 
hand, Polke's early dot effects confound 
the craft-based implications painting as an 
elite means of cultural production. Palmen 
[Palm Trees], 1968, is an excellent example 
of the "Rasterbildern." The recurring motif 
of the palm trees and the benday dot format 
are painted on mattress ticking, which 
combine to produce a classic example of the 
artist's work, both painterly and conceptual. 
Palmen is an exceptional painting. Its 
presale estimate is $180,000-$220,000.
Chinabild [China Picture], a "Stoffbild" 
that also dates from 1968, is an 
unusual painting for the artist. The 
sociopolitical concerns of orientalism and 
the exotic are a recurring theme for the 
artist, and he has painted on silk before. 
What is unusual in this piece is the 
relatively straightforward painting style 
employed during the period when Polke was 
actively producing his "Rasterbildern." In 
this regard Chinabild relates stylistically 
more closely to Bambusbild than to Palmen. 
Given that relationship, the date of the 
painting, and the fact that it's just not as 
visually compelling as much of Polke's 
work, Chinabild is not as significant a 
painting as either Bambusbild or Palmen. 
Its presale estimate is $100,000-$150,000.
The final of the four paintings,The 
Revenge of the Kanakas, dates from 1988 and 
is, at this relatively late date, not 
likely to be considered a vintage Polke, 
though it contains many of his trademark 
motifs. The themes of imperialism and the 
exotic are once again present in the 
imagery, and in the title and the Nigerian 
fabric on which the piece is painted. There 
is also the more stylized reference to the 
benday dot in the far right portion of the 
triptych. This painting is by far the 
largest of the four works under discussion. 
Polke's paintings from the 1980s have done 
well at auction, as the sale of 
Sommerbilder I, II, III proves. These 
combined factors have resulted in the 
auction house's confident presale estimate 
of $180,000-$200,000. 
The analysis of these four paintings 
indicates that the most important work in 
the group is the signature "Rasterbildern" 
painting Palmen. Given the results Polke's 
paintings have realized at auction over the 
past several years, the successful bidder 
on Palmen should be prepared to keep his 
paddle raised well past Sotheby's high 
estimate of $220,000. As the first of the 
four paintings to be auctioned, Palmen may 
have an effect on the results of the three 
lots to follow, but particularly the two 
early pieces. Where the hammer falls on 
this first and most significant lot of the 
group should prove to be pivotal for 
Polke's immediate market at the London 
sales. Polke's overall results in London 
will, in all probability, bolster his 
already strong secondary market. 
The London sales have wrapped up and the 
art world is officially on summer break. 
With the London auction results, Polke's 
market has stayed the course, so to speak, 
by remaining active and healthy, though 
selective. All four of the lots discussed 
here were sold, with two doing very well, 
and one of those achieving particularly 
strong results. (Sales results include the 
buyer's premium, calculated at 15% of the 
first £30,000 of the hammer price and 10% 
of any amount beyond that. All conversions 
to dollars are based on an exchange rate of 
To recount the results in order of the 
works' dates:Bambusbild, 1967, had the 
poorest showing of the week, fetching 
£95,000 ($145,350).Palmen, 1968, the lot I 
thought most interesting, sold for £166,500 
($254,745), with the hammer falling just 
shy of the high end estimate.Chinabild, 
1968, sold solidly for £95,000 ($145,350). 
Polke's strongest showing of the sales was 
for the 1988 painting The Revenge of the 
Kanakas. Estimated to sell for £120,000-
160,000, the successful bidder paid 
£210,000 ($322,065).
In reviewing the estimates given to each of 
the paintings with all of the benefits that 
hindsight has to offer, it seems that both 
auction houses made a pretty accurate 
reading of Polke's current international 
market. Sotheby's was, in this case, 
bullish on its estimate for Bambusbild. 
Christie's had a more accurate gauge for 
the market of Chinabild, and the seller of 
The Revenge of the Kanakas certainly has 
reason to celebrate. And, finally, the 
newest owner of Palmen got themselves a 
great painting at a fair price.
Catherine Morris is a New York writer and 
art historian.