George Condo’s Journey from Warhol Assistant to Kanye Muse to Art Market Dominance
George Condo, Marc Jacobs, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.
George Condo, Nude and Forms, 2014. Courtesy of Christie’s.
When George Condo’s Nude and Forms—a large, brightly colored neo-Cubist painting from 2014—came up at Christie’s post-war and contemporary art auction on May 17th, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, who rarely divulges clues about behind-the-scenes machinations, instead showed his hand.
“We have 11 phones interested in this work,” Pylkkänen said to a rapt sales room, an unusually high number of bidders in an industry where specialists say the average amount per lot is two to three bidders. Pylkkänen opened at $1.2 million; bids came in furiously, and some specialists had to work two phones to give their clients a fighting chance. As the price escalated, post-war deputy chairman Andrew Massad managed to get in a bid by issuing a startled shout—“two-nine!”—that shook the the salesroom. That soon climbed to $3 million, $3.2 million, then $3.8 million; a final joust between two specialists on the phone caused the price to fly up to $5.2 million. At $6.16 million with fees, it set a new record for Condo—more than $2 million above his prior record.
An artist record is exceptional by definition, but for Condo, the 60-year-old New York-based artist known for his menacing, meta-Cubist portraits of figures with twisted faces, they may become the norm. According to over a dozen art advisors, dealers, and auction house specialists, Condo has become the most coveted artist on the secondary market in the last 12 months, thanks to both the minute quantity of his output and the now-widely shared notion that buying his work is a surefire investment that could pay off.
Over the past year, Condo has already set and broken his own record at auction three times. Since he rarely has solo shows at any of his three galleries—Skarstedt, Sprüth Magers, and Simon Lee—the waiting list for one of his works on the primary market has grown vastly in the last year, according to a high-ranking auction house specialist. The artist’s top five prices at auction have all occurred in the last six months, four of them since January alone. In the last year—from the London sales in June 2017 to the May sales in New York, which wrapped last week—only four of the 86 Condos that have come to auction have failed to sell. More remarkably, of the 82 works that did sell, 65 of them, or 79.2 percent, sold for above their high estimates, with prices ranging from $4,000 for a small work on rice paper to over $6 million for the painting that sold at Christie’s evening sale this month.
A number of factors go into the pricing of works, and in most cases, high estimates are ticked down a notch in order to encourage the appearance of overachievement. But still, few artists beat the high mark at a rate of nearly 80 percent. For example, German painter Georg Baselitz sells at a similar price point as Condo, and has also sold a large quantity of work—60 paintings—over the same period of time, but only 35 of them, or 58 percent, sold above their high estimates.
The day after Nude and Forms sold for four times its high estimate, the pattern continued. At Christie’s afternoon sale, a group of dealers in the room were bidding on a suite of eight black-and-white drawings that Condo made in 2008. Each was estimated between $60,000 and $80,000, and all sold for more than $200,000, with five going for more than $400,000.
“The amount of Condo that has come up has been tremendous, and they’re performing incredibly well,” said Ana Maria Celis, head of Christie’s post-war and contemporary art evening sale. “I can’t think of any other artist, not right now at least, at that level.”
George Condo, Compression IV, 2011. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The dealers and advisors who are intimately involved with the Condo market say the frenzy comes from having a low amount of supply, and demand from collectors such as hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen and real estate kingpin Aby Rosen.
“There’s zero supply, and you have this explosion because of it,” said Courtney Kremers, head of post-war & contemporary art day sales at Sotheby’s. Condo will not have a solo show of new work this year, and when pictures do trickle out of his studio, they will land with one of the people or museums on the waiting list—which has grown enormously in the past year, according to a source in the auction world—making auctions one of the few channels through which one can obtain Condo’s work, besides the secondary dealer market.
Condo also has the stamp of approval from dealer-collectors who can make (or break) an artist’s market. The Mugrabi family, as of 2014, owned more than 100 works by Condo, according to Don Thompson’s book The Supermodel and the Brillo Box.
One New York-based advisor said he was offered several Condo paintings privately on the secondary market during Art Basel in Hong Kong in March, for prices ranging between $2.8 million and $3.5 million. All of a sudden, following the sky-high new record for the artist, he said those prices “don’t look so expensive.”
Getting “better with age”
George Condo, Rainy Day Butler, 2012. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Condo is also an artist who has long been critically admired.
“It is very simple,” said Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers of Sprüth Magers, the gallery with locations in Berlin, London, and Los Angeles that started working with Condo in 1984. “George Condo is just a very good painter…with a very deep cultural and political understanding. After working [with him for] almost 40 years, it is not really a surprise that his prices rise.”
Condo’s most desirable work is still being made. The artist started his career at Andy Warhol’s studio, where his job on the factory line was applying diamond dust to Warhol’s canvases. His first shows were at Pat Hearn Gallery during the brief but important East Village gallery boom in the 1980s, but now, as far as the market is concerned, Condo’s most coveted works are the ones he’s made since 2010. According to one dealer who works with a gallery that has sold works by Condo, nearly every collector who asks for his work wants something from the last eight years. Further, Condo’s top five works at auction were all made this decade.
“[Condo] seems to get better and better with age,” Kremers said. “Some artists, you think of those first seminal years, and that’s the sweet spot—with [Condo], it’s the opposite. People want his new work the most.”
The artist’s approach is singular—you know a Condo when you see one. For much of his career, he’s made exacting portraits with exaggerated features, like teeth growing fangs or multiplying eyeballs. His mixing of warped subject matter with the old-school medium of portraiture appeals to different types of collectors, but it’s defiantly punk rock. And it was two moments, months apart, that vaulted Condo into both the public consciousness and the realm of sought-after living artists.
In October 2010, Condo crossed over from the world of fine art into general pop culture by designing the (somewhat inflammatory) cover art for Kanye West’s seminal album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: a naked black man in bed straddled by a winged, tailed nymphette. Leading up to the release, West defended the album art vigorously on Twitter after claiming it was proactively banned by Walmart, setting off a media firestorm.
George Condo, Red Head, 2012. Courtesy of Phillips.
Then, in January 2011, Condo had a high-profile solo exhibition at the New Museum. Entitled “Mental States,” the show was curated by the institution’s then-senior curator Laura Hoptman alongside Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, where the show traveled to later that year. West made an appearance at the New York opening, flanked by an entourage and rocking gold chains; when asked why he enjoys the work of George Condo, the rapper told me, “I don’t talk to the fuckin’ press!”
Indeed, Condo’s work had been purchased on the primary market by a number of prominent collectors for years, many of whom lent work to the exhibition: Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Michael Ringier; Eli Broad; Lisa and Steve Tananbaum. But it was the new ambition of his practice, not just his association with Kanye, that started Condo on a track toward a prominent position in the secondary market ecosystem.
“Right before ‘Mental States’, [Condo] developed a new approach using pastel and oils in large-scale works that showcased both his virtuoso handling of paint and his remarkable draughtsmanship,” said Rugoff, who will be the curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale, in an email. “And I think it was really with this body of work—a breakthrough in a career featuring many—that his prices began to move up.”
“Beginning with the traveling retrospective at the New Museum, which traveled to the Hayward and other institutions, and major acquisitions by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Tate Modern, people are finally catching up with what a great painter [Condo] is,” said Per Skarstedt—one of the artist’s dealers, who has galleries on the Upper East Side as well as London’s Mayfair—by email. He declined to provide primary market prices from that period.
“That opened the floodgates”
George Condo, Day of the Idol, 2011. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
At the time the New Museum retrospective opened, Condo’s auction record was just over $1 million, and his work was selling on the secondary market for as much as $450,000, according to a 2011 New Yorker profile. In the years that followed, prices for Condo’s work would steadily increase in both arenas. In 2012, The Manhattan Strip Club (2010) notched a new record for the artist when it sold for $1.3 million at Christie’s New York, and by 2014, Skarstedt sold Smiling Girl (2014) for $500,000 to a German collector at Art Basel in Switzerland. A year later at the same fair, Condo’s prices had crept higher, with Skarstedt selling The Madman (2005) for $650,000 and The Good Old Days (2015) for $600,000.
By 2016, Condo’s market was in full swing. Five works from the holdings of devoted Condo collectors Steven and Ann Ames sold at Sotheby’s during the house’s November sales, and at Phillips, there was a fight over Noble Woman (2009), with the speculative collecting dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski picking it up after trading bids with specialist Rebekah Bowling. The work hammered at $830,000, beating its $700,000 high estimate and coming to $1 million with fees.
After the sale, Sayegh-Belchatowski told me, perhaps prophetically, “It’s a $5 million painting in two years.”
Or maybe it was less prophesied than, um, engineered—as multiple art advisers told me, Sayegh-Belchatowski is a player in the Condo market, carrying a vested interest in spurring his prices up. When shown a picture of the dealer, a New York-based art advisor confirmed via text that it was Sayegh-Belchatowski he had seen at the day sales on May 18th, bidding on the aforementioned suite of eight black-and-white drawings with a few French associates, pushing the works’ prices upwards of five times their high estimates, and winning a few in the process.
Condo’s 2016 performance made prospective collectors bullish on the work, either as a trophy or an investment. Celis, the Christie’s evening sale head, said that by mid-2017, “I was getting increasingly different types of clients requesting Condo, and I was seeing things trade privately that had very recently been bought on the primary market.”
“By the time we were finishing our sales for November of last year, our general feeling was: If a major Condo comes up, this is going to transform the market for [him],” Celis said.
There was a major Condo that came up that fall, but it went to Sotheby’s, she said with a sigh.
The transformative painting was Compression IV (2011), a image of mangled bodies pressed tightly together, richly evocative of Condo’s firm hold on the beauty of the grotesque. Bought by the consignor at Skarstedt in 2011, it was the cover lot of the November contemporary art day sales at Sotheby’s.
“A truly fantastic ‘A-plus’ picture by [Condo] hadn’t come up in five years,” said Kremers, the Sotheby’s specialist who oversaw the sale. “We fought hard to get this painting into the sale.”
Word had leaked out that this Condo could double its high estimate, and perhaps even score a record for the artist. The bidding opened at $1.2 million, and Sotheby’s specialist Bernie Lagrange quickly went in, followed by specialists Clarissa Post, Yuki Terase, and David Rothschild, the latter of whom bid $1.6 million; with premium, that would already be enough to break Condo’s record. But it didn’t stop there, as post-war and contemporary head Alex Branczik—who airdrops into day sales only for primo lots—offered a $2.6 million bid, followed by a mysterious online bidder, and then again by Terase—who, some speculated at the time, was bidding on behalf of her client Yusaku Maezawa, a big Condo fan.
George Condo, Little Joe, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The work hammered for the online bidder at $3.4 million, or $4.1 million with fees—more than doubling Condo’s previous record, which was set in July 2016 when his Blue Diagonal Head (2016) sold for $1.98 million at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Gala Auction in St. Tropez. “I remember having, like, 15 phones confirmed,” Kremers recalled, meaning that 15 people were willing to part with—at the very least—the work’s reserve price of $1.2 million in order to own it.
“We had a lot of people who never got a bid in,” she continued. “To have 15—there are only a few lots every season that have that depth of bidding.”
This new record prompted a stream of consignments of top-flight work: Two Condos that sold during the London sales week in March 2018—the next major round of auctions—now occupy spots in his top 10, alongside Rainy Day Butler (2012), which was the unexpected star of the usually modest contemporary curated sale at Sotheby’s New York that same month when it sold for $2.4 million, doubling the high estimate. (It may have been helped by another celebrity nod when it was highlighted ahead of the sale by Sotheby’s specialist Caspar Jopling and his girlfriend, the pop star Ellie Goulding.)
Regardless, this new mark sparked a run on Condo at all houses, and convinced some collectors with Condos in the garage to offer them up.
“That opened the floodgates,” said Celis.
This year’s May sales in New York were the biggest test to date for the artist, since—for the first time ever—Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s all made the decision to sell their Condos in the evening sales, rather than the day sales. Sotheby’s went first, offering up Day of the Idol (2011)—purchased from Skarstedt during the same show as Compression IV—as its 25th lot of the evening, with a high estimate of $2 million. I watched in the sale room as Jose Mugrabi, the majordomo of perhaps the biggest art collecting family on earth, snapped it up for a $2.3 million hammer, or $2.77 million with fees.
The next day, at Phillips, New York-based art dealer David Benrimon loudly entered the bidding on Condo’s Red Head (2012), before being taken over by a phone bidder. Then, a man in the room—whom art market writer Josh Baer identified in his Baerfaxt newsletter as Stewart Rahr, a pharmaceutical billionaire and friend of President Donald Trump—purchased the work at a $1.5 million hammer, or $1.8 million with fees. The Condo sold early at the 5:00 p.m. Phillips evening sale on May 17th, and during the evening sale at Christie’s that same night at 7:00 p.m., just a few blocks away, Pylkkänen opened the bidding on Nude and Forms, the work that broke the record when it sold to the client on the phone for $6.16 million.
Christie’s had been expecting something of a smash, as the painting is a shining example of the large-scale works that Condo started making after his New Museum show—a bold, gigantic nude portrait that stunned collectors who came to see the work before the sale. It was a late addition to the roster, Celis said.
“I felt very strongly that if we were to have a Condo in the evening sale, it had to be an ‘A,’” she told me. “I held out until the end, and this came by and we said, ‘This is it.’ This felt like an ‘A.’”
Now the question is: How much higher can the Condo market go? Was Sayegh-Belchatowski right to say the Condo he bought for $1 million in 2016 would be worth five times that by the end of this year? One advisor told me that he got offers to sell multiple Condos immediately after the record-breaking lot at Christie’s, a sign that several owners of his work are aware of the current frenzy and would be willing to part with their paintings for the right price. But on the auction side, the specialists preached caution, saying that even if dealers with stockpiles of Condos in storage start consigning top-flight works, which could produce more record prices, it’s bound to level off. And even if prices are still going up, auction house specialists say they are telling consignors that estimates have to stay low. They are “managing expectations,” as Celis put it.
But Skarstedt said that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the market kept going higher and higher. When an artist like George Condo gains market momentum the speed of a bullet train, oftentimes, the best approach is to jump on and hitch a ride.
“There is tremendous demand for works of this quality from this artist,” Celis said. “Going forward, if something comes by my inbox, you can be sure I’m jumping on it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Skarstedt Gallery maintains locations in New York’s Upper East Side, Chelsea, and London’s Mayfair. The Chelsea location is no longer in operation.