Essential Tips for Collecting Works by Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was a pioneer of the late 20th-century avant-garde. With an expansive and compelling body of work that spans a vast spectrum of media ranging from paintings, performances, and assemblages to monumental sculptures and sprawling architectural structures, in the past year, the late artist has been the subject of long overdue interest and recognition.
While most recognized for her performances, monumental sculptures, and revelatory public works, it might surprise collectors to know that the French-American artist’s work is highly collectible at a wide range of price points, scales, and mediums. Throughout her life, the artist was compelled to create with a profound sense of urgency, continually pushing her own boundaries in terms of material, while always staying true to her vision. Saint Phalle received critical acclaim during her lifetime, and her work has seen consistent market demand for decades. However, as more public institutions—most recently MoMA PS1 in New York City—pay long-overdue homage to her work, interest in the artist’s boundless and multifarious body of work only continues to grow. To offer insight into the celebrated artist’s market, we spoke with specialists about the life, work, and legacy of Niki de Saint Phalle.
Delve into the artist’s personal history
It’s easy to become enamored by Saint Phalle’s work without necessarily knowing the history surrounding it. The artist’s most notable and popular works, such as her “Nanas” series, are delightfully exuberant, bold, and strikingly vibrant—a testament to her vision and ethos in the latter period of her life, in which she was dedicated to spreading joy as a radical act. (She once mused, “Art to most people is something terribly serious, and people refuse to realize that joy is something terribly serious too.”)
Many of Saint Phalle’s works possess a playful, childlike sensibility replete with recurring symbolic motifs that hearken to fairytales, including animals, snakes, and dragons. However, the deceptive simplicity of Saint Phalle’s work shrouds an expansive, radical, and complex map of an artist’s emotional inner landscape and evolving ethos throughout her lifetime. Understanding the historical and biographical context of the artist’s practice implores a far more profound appreciation for the work than its initial aesthetic appeal.
The greater arc of Saint Phalle’s oeuvre can be delineated into two distinct periods—first, a cathartic release of feminist rage realized through violence, evolving later into a celebration of the joy of creation, expressed through the unabashed and exaggerated feminine form reminiscent of the Fertile Goddess of the Upper Paleolithic Era. Saint Phalle first rose to prominence with her “Tirs” (French for “shots”) paintings, a series of works created in the early 1960s in which she fired a rifle at canvases fashioned with bags of paint to represent an altar or effigy. In speaking of these works, which earned her a place as the only woman of the Nouveau Réalisme movement in France among artists including Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, and Jean Tinguely, Saint Phalle said, “Only a woman could use those destructive contraptions that man has imagined for a constructive end.”
Later in her life, Saint Phalle ventured into figurative and popular art, creating out of a desire to inspire joy and promote awareness surrounding social causes, including the AIDS epidemic, as well as gender and racial equality. The artist’s Tarot Garden (1998), a colossal sculpture park in Tuscany, Italy, inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell that is considered to be Saint Phalle’s magnum opus, is the culmination of decades of work, representing the artist’s version of a utopia.
Gilles Dyan, CEO and chairman of Opera Gallery, suggested that collectors should see as much of Saint Phalle’s work in person as possible to gain a full appreciation of her breadth. He cited the Niki Charitable Art Foundation as a resource for learning more about the artist, in addition to the museums, galleries, and public spaces around the world. “The more you see, the better you understand,” he said. “It is always interesting to know more about an artist’s life to better understand [their] work, and this is especially true for Saint Phalle as her work is deeply personal and autobiographical.”
Saint Phalle initially began creating art as a way to reckon with the traumas inflicted upon her at the hands of a patriarchal society, most poignantly the sexual abuse she endured from her father when she was a child, culminating in an emotional breakdown when she was 22. While in recovery at an asylum in France, the artist felt compelled to paint and attributed her ability to heal to the practice. She once said, “It was through creation that I discovered the somber depths of depression and how to overcome it.”
Dyan said, “For her, art was a way of expressing what she felt more than what she saw…and this is what sets her work apart: she was one of the first artists who was not afraid to expose her feelings to the world. She was a self-taught artist who revealed her deepest thoughts and personal traumas through her work, and this is how she touched her contemporaries as well as the subsequent generations.”
Don’t overlook the artist’s more commercial works
Saint Phalle’s work was an act of rebellion. She refused the traditional roles assigned to women as well as the oppression and destruction inherent in a patriarchal society. At the same time, her works also defied the exclusive nature of the art world. She created her sculptural and architectural works at an increasingly grand scale for the dual purpose of seeing them tower over patriarchal monuments of war while also making them accessible to the general public.
To fund these large-scale projects, Saint Phalle created and sold several small editioned works, including jewelry, perfume, prints, and even inflatable pool toys. These editions allowed her to create according to her personal vision without adhering to patrons’ requests.
Sébastien Carvalho, director of Galerie Mitterrand, explained that “in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Niki de Saint Phalle developed a more hybrid work that corresponds to the advent and realization of her masterpiece The Tarot Garden. Numerous works testify to her research. Models, small-scale sculptures of future monumental works, and furniture were often made in several copies, as they were also intended to enable Niki to finance the creation of the garden. All these works tell the story of the realization of this extraordinary project which was intended to become a work accessible to all.”
He continued to explain that although these works appear commercial, creating them was completely in phase with the artist’s ethos of accessibility. “Many contemporary artists have followed this approach, including Kusama, Murakami, Koons, KAWS, and many other artists who integrate the edition of multiples into their work,” he said.
“I would advise that collectors not be afraid to branch out into the more, what some might call, commercial aspects, like the jewelry or the perfume,” said Astrid Bernadotte, director of Omer Tiroche Gallery, noting that the artist’s smaller works and prints are also far more practical to have in your home than the massive sculptures that appear in public spaces. Multiples were an essential part of Saint Phalle’s oeuvre and represent her commitment to her values and compulsion to create and cultivate joy on her own terms. Today, these multiples remain at highly accessible price points for all collectors (Inflatable Nana, 1968, sold at Bonhams for $1,657 this past July).
Collect according to your budget
Saint Phalle’s distinctive, interdisciplinary body of work traverses a wide spectrum of media—including drawings, paintings, lithographs, books, sculptures, installations, jewelry, and ephemera. By extension, the market for the artist’s work is equally expansive and diverse in price range, with works available from anywhere between three to seven figures. At auction, her current record is $1.1 million, established in 2006 with the sale of Ana Lena en Grèce (1965–67) at Sotheby’s.
Carvalho noted that “for several years, we have noticed a very strong demand for the small ‘Nanas’ of the ’60s and ’70s. The works between €50,000 and €300,000 are very sought after. These ‘Nanas’ are very attractive and very identifiable. The large ‘Nanas’ from the same period have become extremely rare. Their price often exceeds a million euros. Their value is such today that they can be described as museum pieces.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Saint Phalle’s editioned works and multiples can be quite affordable and accessible. Cary Leibowitz, co-head of editions at Phillips, pointed to Saint Phalle’s prints as being “some of the art world’s great bargains.”
Dyan said, “My advice for navigating the market to acquire a work by Niki de Saint Phalle is the same as for any other artist: you must acquire what you like, what speaks to you, what touches you. Of course, there is always the matter of budget, but Niki de Saint Phalle spans a wide range of types of works at prices to suit all pockets.”
Bernadotte said, “Her work is so instantly recognizable, throughout every single stage of her work and every medium that she delved into,” citing the artist’s recurring motifs and bold approach to color and form. Because of this, she explained, any one of the artist’s works is representative of her oeuvre, from her prints and wearable sculptures to her colossal sculptural works, and is a worthy investment for any collector.
Let your emotions guide you
This cardinal rule of collecting is particularly applicable to Saint Phalle’s work, which can lend immense joy and riveting emotional complexity to any collection. “Her artworks are surprising and eccentric, emotional, dark and brutal, humorous and cheerful, and often challenging because of the underlying narratives,” said Dyan.
Bernadotte echoed this sentiment. “The general rule of thumb is always collect or buy things that you are comfortable with keeping forever because if you’re buying it necessarily for an investment, there’s never a guarantee,” she said. “You’ve really got to love the work. If you make money out of it, then that’s a bonus. First and foremost, you should buy something that makes you smile and brings you happiness—which is very easy to do with Niki de Saint Phalle’s work.”