Art Markets: Dali collectors proceed with caution

If you come across a signed work by one of the 20th century’s best known and most influential artists, with a price tag of under $500, you would normally have every reason to suspect a forgery. But if the print bears the signature of Salvador Dali, you might just have a genuine article. In the last years of his life, Dali (1904-1989) produced and signed prints like a busy autoworker during the golden years of General Motors, confident that the demand for his product would continue to grow.

As with many troubled industries, Dali eventually oversold and outguessed himself. However, his confidence was supported by great accomplishment. For more than 40 years Dali stood alongside fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso as the world’s most famous artist. His entire adult life could be considered as an extended exercise in performance art, starting with the waxed tips of his trademark mustache and continuing through his pithy aphorisms. “The difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad,” he was fond of saying. His image of melting watches on a bleak seashore, Persistence of Memory (1931), was one of the last century’s most instantly recognizable paintings. But as critic Robert Hughes pointed out, Dali’s reputation as a serious artist rested on the work he did before reaching the age of 35. He lived for another 50 years.

During his pathfinding period, the 1920s and ‘30s, Dali became the leading exponent of Surrealism, the art of dreams and the unconscious, the art of chance, madness and hallucination. The stated aim of the Surrealists was to free the mind from the grip of convention and rationality, opening a window onto a more primal reality. With as much insight as any of his colleagues and twice as much showmanship, Dali drew fabulous images from the storehouse of myth and dream, juxtaposing them in disorienting associations.

Born in Spain, Dali was steeped in the empty blue sky and rocky landscape of his youth. As a student at Madrid’s School of Fine Arts, he absorbed classical skills in drawing. Dali was both ancient and modern. His imagination was stimulated by the Baroque art of imperial Spain and Sigmund Freud’s speculations into the role of the Id. By the end of the 1930s he broke with the Surrealist movement in arguments over politics and art. The self-styled Surrealist leader Andre Breton denounced him as a reactionary.

Dali didn’t care. By 1940, when he moved to the U.S., he had a firm hold over the imagination of America’s tastemakers. Dali would go on to design everything from the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound to album covers for Jackie Gleason. He made Surrealism pop.

There are over 1,700 genuine and authentic works on paper listed in the Dali catalog raisonne published by Albert Field in 1994.

Because of the number of fakes and forgeries produced after the artist’s involuntary retirement in 1980, a reference check is advisable before purchasing any work by Dali. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Swann and Phillips du Pury are among the auction houses that typically reference a catalog raisonne for Dali prints in the lot description. Another industry standard is the two-volume set, referred to by its authors Michler & Lopsinger (Salvador Dali is also listed as an author), published by Prestel Publishing in 1993 and 1995.

The volume of prints appearing at auction remains strong, with foreign markets in the lead for sales and quantity. Stockholm, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Berlin, Tokyo and even Auckland list Dali prints in their annual sales. In the United States, activity is comparatively slower, showing fewer sellers and infrequent buyers.

Dali’s print production drew from all aspects of the medium including engravings, woodcuts, mixed media as well as lithographs laid on paper and foil. He issued multiple prints in limited edition portfolios with fanciful titles such as “Alchemy and the Philosophers,” “Memories of Surrealism” and “Homage to Leonardo DaVinci” to name a few. The complete set Aliyah (1968) featuring 25 color lithographs in an edition size of 250, created in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, sold at auction at Doyle (New York) in April 2009 for $7,500 (hammer).

“Memories of Surrealism” (1971), a suite of 12 etchings and photo lithographs on Arches, sold at Swann (New York) in October 2008 for $9,000 (hammer).

Beatrice (1964), a single woodcut print and not part of any set, sold at Skinner (Boston) in March 2009 for $500 (hammer). One image from the 12 print suite “Knights of the Round Table” (1977), a lithograph on Arches with foil embellishment, auctioned at O’Gallerie (Portland) in April 2009 for $600 (hammer).

While sales figures are up and down, public awareness of Dali remains high. Museum retrospectives have been mounted in recent years across the globe. In 2005 the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted an exhibit of over 200 pieces of the Spanish master’s work, including sculpture, works on paper, photographs and paintings. The focus was on his post World War II output.

Currently, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is hosting the first comprehensive retrospective of the work of Dali ever to be staged in the country. “Liquid Desire” consists of painting, drawing, sculpture, jewelry, cinema and photography spanning the artist’s career from his teen years through his seventies. The display comprises the biggest Dali collection in the world with works from the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain.

It is expected that 1.3 million visitors will travel to Melbourne to view the visual spectacle, injecting millions of tourism dollars into Victoria’s economy. It runs through Oct. 4, 2009.

Throughout his life, Dali was a curious amalgam of conservative and radical tendencies, stepping boldly into the future while standing firm on the past. He considered it his greatest honor when, late in life, King Juan Carlos of Spain ennobled him, granting Dali the title of marquis.