Art Market

5 Essential Tips for Collecting Surrealist Art

Reena Devi
Nov 26, 2020 1:00PM

Christie's employees with works by Rene Magritte. Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images.

In officially establishing Surrealism in Paris in 1924, the poet André Breton wanted the artistic and literary movement to become a revolution that freed people’s minds from rational social constructs, exploring the unconscious mind as the origin of artistic creativity.

While the genre originated and flourished in Europe, World War II had dispersed and distributed its artists around the world. While some landed in New York and Los Angeles, many artists either found refuge in or permanently emigrated to Latin America, specifically Mexico.

It is this richness in history and diversity that makes Surrealist art evocative and timeless. However, these traits can also make Surrealist artworks intimidating to buy as a collector. In order to better understand collecting such artworks, we reached out to Surrealist experts to answer a few important questions.

Who are the leading Surrealists in the art market?

Yves Tanguy
Sans titre (Taille de guêpe), 1945
Omer Tiroche Gallery

The most well-known names typically include the Surrealist painters from Europe, such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Paul Delvaux. Generally speaking, these artists foreground the market for Surrealism. Last year, the Magritte market experienced its largest amount of sold lots, earning over $108 million total at auction. In 2018, Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (1937), featuring a suited figure with incandescent light replacing his head, set an auction record, selling for $26.8 million at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern evening sale. A work by Miró has earned over $37 million at auction; Dalí, over $21.7 million; Tanguy up to $7.4 million; and Delvaux, a cozy $10.6 million.

“I think the market for Surrealism, particularly European and Latin American Surrealism, has been very strong for many years in part due to name recognition and the movement’s international associations,” said New York gallerist Jonathan Boos.

Who are the rising Surrealist artists with more affordable works?

Kay Sage
White Silence, 1941
Caldwell Gallery Hudson

While collecting works by household-name Surrealists may often be unattainable, the diasporic nature of the Surrealist movement means that there remains a wide array of lesser known but equally talented artists to collect, particularly as scholarship about the movement deepens.

Swiss gallerist Stefan von Bartha believes European Surrealists Konrad Klapheck and Yves Laloy are poised for their big breaks in recognition. “Those were the two last big discoveries by André Breton,” he said.

Meanwhile, recent scholarship around Latin American Surrealists has led to a percolating rise in market interest in artists like Wilfredo Lam and Roberto Matta. “Prices for art by Lam, specifically works produced in the 1940s, have certainly strengthened and undergone an incremental climb over these last several years,” said Andrea Zorrilla, vice president and specialist in Latin American art at Sotheby’s New York.

Another unplumbed and promising market could potentially be the wealth of American Surrealists from the 1930s to ’40s. These include O. Louis Guglielmi, Helen Lundeberg, Joseph Cornell, Peter Blume, Federico Castellon, John Atherton, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, Jared French, John Wilde, Gertrude Abercrombie, and many others.

Who are the overlooked Surrealist artists currently gaining traction?

Wifredo Lam
Idoli, 1973
Galerie Von Vertes

The most disproportionately overlooked yet pivotal players in Surrealism were the female artists who broke away from the overtly sexist parameters set forth by Breton to create their own brand of visually definitive and transcendent Surrealist works. A course correction has been taking place over the past decade or so, shedding light on artists such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Alice Rahon, Bridget Tichenor, and Maria Martins.

According to Zorrilla, these artists have quickly become a regular presence in the marketplace with prices following suit. “This is not simply just a trend,” she said. “This is long overdue recognition by the market.”

Federico Castellon
Untitled, 1939
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

In the past decade, works by women Surrealists have rapidly broken into the seven-figure range. A 2014 auction at Sotheby’s saw works by both Varo and Carrington shattering their secondary market records at $4.3 million and $2.6 million, respectively. Varo’s auction record was broken again this year with the $6.1 million sale of her 1956 work Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente). This year also proved to be historic for Alice Rahon, who surpassed her previous auction record not once but twice this summer at Sotheby’s: once in May with the $112,500 sale of La Cueva de los Amigos (1951)—tying her previous auction record set in 2019 by her 1945 work Le Cirque—and again in June with her 1960 canvas Los Cuatro Hijos del Arco Iris, which skyrocketed past its high estimate, selling for an astounding $512,000.

This belated acclaim is in large part thanks to the work of art historians like Whitney Chadwick, Dawn Ades, and Tere Arcq, as well as exhibitions including “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,” organized in 2012 by LACMA in partnership with Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, and the more recent exhibition “Alice Rahon: Poetic Invocations” at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (2019–20).

What should I know about the different media used by Surrealists?

Max Ernst
Pollen dans le bois, 1953
Galerie Thomas

According to Olivier Camu, deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s (who also started the auction house’s annual “Art of the Surreal” sale in 2001), “There is no superiority in mediums, although oil on canvas is the most common and works on canvas tend to be more expensive than works on paper.”

At first glance, it might seem as though artworks from this movement are mostly paintings. However, a closer look will reveal the vast and expansive material oeuvre of Surrealism in all its physicality, encompassing film, prints, photos, sculptures, and more.

Each artist typically is appreciated for a specific medium. For example, artists like Óscar Domínguez and Max Ernst are known for using a technique called “decalcomania.” This is a specific type of transfer process developed for engravers in the 18th century, moving paint from flat surfaces onto canvas or paper.

How do you know the Surrealist art you are buying is authentic?

Gertrude Abercrombie
White Horse, 1939

As the market for Surrealism continues to grow, so too does the potential for scams. Recently, there have reportedly been concerns about a market in fake artworks by Chicago Surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie. The combination of rapidly escalating demand for Abercrombie’s work paired with her relatively replicable painting style made her work an easy target. Luckily, because these works attract such a devoted following, there is little room for forgeries.

Camu explained that authentication is not a major issue for the main Surrealist artists. “Copies and forgeries made by other artists are easy to spot and those works do not enter our auctions,” he said. “We are helped by the existence of excellent catalogues raisonnés and independent expert committees that include sometimes museum-quality experts and art historians, as well as technicians and, in some cases, descendants of the artists.”

Salvador Dalí
The Burning Giraffe from the Tauromachie Suite, 1966-1967
New River Fine Art

“Those experts and expertise committees are each focused on one artist and benefit from archives and photographic materials. After all, this art is less than 100 years old,” Camu added.

In Abercrombie’s case, gallerists and institutions were able to rely on the rather extensive records the artist kept of her art through around 1960. Art historian Susan Weininger, who worked with Don Baum, the late artist and curator who was executor of Abercrombie’s estate, also wrote a resourceful essay for a 1991 exhibition about the Surrealist’s work.

Boos agreed that documentation and research is key to ensuring authenticity. “It is always important to work with reputable dealers and auction houses,” he said. “When doing so, a collector should expect exceptional research and provenance information to be provided—always.”

Reena Devi