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Architecture is taking centre stage in the art world, and the market for architectural drawings is heating up

Few dealers, scarce material, but a growing audience

New York

With three museum exhibitions devoted to master architects–Mies van der Rohe at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art along with Frank Gehry at the Guggenheim Museum–architecture is taking centre stage in the art world, and the market for architectural drawings is heating up.

"Sales are fantastic," says Max Protech, who is the US’s leading speciality dealer and whose Chelsea gallery also features contemporary artists. This month, Mr Protech is showing “Mies van der Rohe & Louis Kahn drawings”, as well as a selection of Louis Sullivan artifacts along with drawings and photographs by other major architects (see p.77).

The biggest change in this market is that now it is overwhelmingly institution-driven. Active museums include MoMA, San Francisco MoMA, the Getty, Denver Art Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, along with six European institutions. Paris’ Pompidou Centre is a major player. At first, private clients were primarily art collectors and they were not particularly knowledgeable about architecture. That has changed markedly. "The level of awareness has grown exponentially," says Mr Protech.

How large is this collecting base? "Twenty years ago, I knew all of my clients; today, complete strangers walk in and buy," says Mr Protech. He believes the collectors have increased 20 fold of which 20 are private buyers who are collecting substantially.

Why the interest in architecture? "It is the art of this generation," says Chelsea dealer Henry Urbach, who trained as an architectural historian. "Architectural material is between art and science." One factor fuelling this interest is that drawings are by hand and the advent of CAD files (computer aided design) are revolutionising the practice of architecture. This means that contemporary drawings will soon no longer be hand-made, and collectors are hurrying to buy them while they are still available. Another factor is the growing emphasis on architecture in contemporary art, for example, the work of James Casabere, who uses architecture in his installations.

One problem is finding material from the first half of the 20th century. "Many architects from that period donated their work to museums which means there is little on the market," says Mr Urbach. As a result, this is a dealer-driven market and prices have tripled over the past 20 years.

The most coveted material is by Frank Lloyd Wright, with prices in the mid-six figures for a single sheet from an important building. Condition is generally not an issue because minor tears and smudges highlight the fact that such drawings are really working documents.

Also available in this field are artefacts such as an intricate Louis Sullivan plaster capital fragment from the Chicago Stock Exchange, priced at $50,000 at Max Protech.

Architectural models have a very limited market because they pose enormous condition and storage problems. "They are ephemeral simply by virtue of their materials," says Mr Protech. Chelsea dealer Henry Urbach recently sold period models of the Metropolitan Life Insurance building, complete with miniature electric lights, to investing and trading giant Goldman Sachs. Sadly, size prevents many institutions from collecting them, report two prominent librarians. The Guggenheim show, which features a number of Gehry's sculptural models, could spur this market.

Across the Atlantic, London's Rachel and David Blissett, who are BADA members, have been dealing in 16th- to 20th-century original architectural drawings for two decades. They sell to museums across the board, from the Getty and the Canadian Centre for Architecture to the Morgan Library, as well as to private collectors. Currently, they have drawings on offer by the French architect Jean Charles Moreux and the Italian Futurist Vrillo Marchi

"We are seeing more American interest," says Rachel Blissett. Although US clients are but a handful, several have their own curators, she says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Reaching for the skies'