Artists Find Reason to Buy Back Their Own Work

"When I was very young, I sold my work just to make a living," but as the artist Arman got older - he died in 2005 at the age of 76 - he wished he still had some of the art that was pivotal to the development of his career. So, when his 1960 assemblage of French gas masks in a wooden box, entitled "Home Sweet Home II," came up at auction at Sotheby's in London in 2000, he was one of the bidders and ended up paying $326,530 for a work he had sold 45 years before for $6,000. Selling low and buying high is no formula for success, but the French-born artist, who had homes in both Manhattan and Paris, has done well in his career, and anyway this wasn't about money. "I have no works left from 1960," he said. "I wanted a good example for my legacy."
The customary picture of the art world has artists entering the market to sell work, not to buy it, but a number of artists have actively or sporadically sought out their own artwork at galleries and auction houses. These well-known and wealthy artists represent a small but interesting segment of the art market, generally looking for their early work, jockeying with other collectors for it. Their reasons are many: Some want certain pieces back for their own collections; some wish they had never sold a particular work in the first place; some look to deal in their own work, just as any gallery owner might; some try to protect their markets by purchasing pieces that might not get sold or could be sold for a career-damagingly low amount of money.
It was that last concern that led British artist Damien Hirst and, before him, Alex Katz to buy back numerous works from collector Charles Saatchi, who had bought their work in quantity and later made known his desire to dispose of it. "I wanted them back, and it was a good use of capital," Alex Katz said of the 21 pieces he purchased for an undisclosed sum. "Some of those works have since sold" to other collectors. For his part, Hirst paid a reported 12-15 million pounds sterling for 12 works, which he reacquired through his London-based art gallery White Cube. Hirst and Katz had both learned from the experience of Italian neo-expressionist painter Sandro Chia, whose work had been bought in the early 1980s and later sold en masse by Saatchi one day in 1986, depressing prices and dimming the artist's prestige in the art market. "It was the first time that works of art were treated as stocks that were dumped," said Manhattan art dealer Nohra Haime, who currently exhibits Chia's paintings. "The public related to these works in the same way, thinking that they must be worth dumping." (After that experience, Chia began buying back his own work, and "now his market is doing much better as a result," Haime said.)
Chia's work was sold by Saatchi back to the dealers, Angela Westwater in Manhattan and Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, Switzerland, from whom he had originally purchased it, but it was Saatchi's publicly stated intention of getting rid of the artworks that led to the artist's embarrassment. The embarrassment may be even greater when artwork is put up for sale at auction and doesn't find buyers or doesn't fetch a good price. Then, everyone may find out, and "it feels like a blemish, a vulnerability in the artist's market," said Sique Spence, director of New York's Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The gallery keeps a look-out for works by the artists it represents that come up for public sale, and "we would bid on it, unless we were going against a collector we know. We might get the work back at a reduced price, or we might be able to bid it up a little bit," in order that the selling price go higher than it would have otherwise.
At times, artists may similarly look to protect their markets. After a work of his had been bought-in at auction several years ago, the artist Brice Marden went the next day to the auction house and purchased it. Sometimes, artists may even look to play the market, by buying their own works on the secondary market when the prices are low, then looking to sell them for more later. "In some auctions in Europe, I see my works are selling at a low price," Arman said. "I'll buy it and sell it myself, make more money." The same thought was expressed by painter Don Eddy who had once authorized his dealer to purchase one of his works up at auction for him. "If I can get it at a reasonable price and then turn a profit on it, why not?" he said. "Why should someone else make the profit and not me?"
Over the past few years, Eddy has been building a collection of his work through purchases and an occasional swap of something new for something old. "There are some paintings I wish I had never sold," he said.
A very slow-paced, highly detail-conscious painter, Eddy only has produced a handful of paintings per year, which all have sold, but "my family doesn't have any of my work," he said. "I want my family to have some work in my estate," which led him to start buying back his own paintings from time to time. Perhaps, the most active artist in the art market is Jasper Johns, who is thought to own more of his work than any other artist or his stature. Some of those pieces he bought back through long-time dealer Leo Castelli, including a watercolor and collage design for a stage set in Paris in 1961. This work was given to a florist in Paris who used it as a model to create a large flower target for a performance by Johns, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. The drawing became available for sale at the Castelli gallery in 1966 and Johns bought it. According to the gallery's current owner, Barbara Castelli, the work is currently in the artist's personal collection. Another piece that Johns bought back he clearly disliked. "It was a work that Johns gave to someone who later wanted to sell it," she said. "Johns bought it and destroyed it. He didn't want it in the market."
Dealers regularly alert the artists they represent to previously sold works that are coming back onto the market, sometimes arranging sales or just putting the artist in touch with the collector. Carroll Janis, a private art dealer in New York City, stated that he had acted as a go-between in helping artists Robert Rauschenberg and Tom Wesselmann reaquire their own early work from collectors looking to sell, and Manhattan gallery owner Louis K. Meisel said that "every time a painting comes back, I call the artist, asking, 'Do you want to participate in the purchase, or trade me another work for this one?'" There is no price break for being the artist, but Meisel claimed that "most people, knowing the artist wants it back, will be a little bit gentler." Among the artists for whom he claimed to have helped buy back works are Audrey Flack, Mel Ramos and Theodoros Stamos.
As a presence in the art market, fine artists don't cast a long shadow. As wealthy as some may have become, most still cannot compete with the auction world's high rollers. Chuck Close bought a half dozen drawings from Meisel, his early dealer, paying in "the middle six figures," Meisel claimed. "After his illness, he couldn't do that intensely Photo Realist type of work anymore," and Close wanted some of those early pieces back. He will have to settle for drawings. "Chuck couldn't buy back any of his major stuff," Meisel said. "It's just too expensive."