The Hot Bid: Shepard Fairey’s record-setting artwork

‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité,’ a 2018 work on canvas by American artist Shepard Fairey. Image courtesy Artcurial

NEW YORK – On occasion, The Hot Bid revisits remarkable antique and vintage collectible that have sold. Today’s subject is a painting by American artist Shepard Fairey.

What you see: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, a 2018 work on canvas by Shepard Fairey. Artcurial sold it on Nov. 5, 2019, for €232,200 ($259,089) against an estimate of €80,000 to €120,000 (roughly $90,300 to $135,500), setting a world auction record for the artist.

The expert: Arnaud Oliveux, associate director and auctioneer in Artcurial’s urban art department.

Who is Shepard Fairey? He’s one of the most important contemporary urban artists. He’s very well-known for the image of Andre the Giant that he stickered all around the world at the beginning of his career in the late 1980s. Andre the Giant was a famous French wrestler who had a very particular and impressive body. Shepard used, and still uses, this image to do some posters with the word OBEY, which became its tagline. It references George Orwell’s book 1984 and John Carpenter’s movie Invasion Los Angeles [known in the United States as They Live]. Fairey’s works often deal with subjects such as mass manipulation and propaganda images, as well as with musicians who play rap or punk music. It can easily be said that Fairey is a committed artist.

When you say that Shepard Fairey is a committed artist, could you elaborate on what you mean by that? I mean that Shepard’s work deals with political and ecological issues. I think he himself is very committed, and that’s the reason why his works deals with these issues – Big Brother [the symbol of the surveillance state that reigns in 1984], war . . .

Could you tell the story of why Fairey made this French-themed work? What prompted him to create it? He created it just after the Bataclan attacks of November 2015 in Paris. [ISIL terrorists conducted several attacks on civilian targets in the city in mid-November 2015. The deadliest happened at the Bataclan theater, during a performance by the American band Eagles of Death Metal. Of the 130 victims who died in the Nov. 15 attacks, 90 were killed at the Bataclan.] Fairey was in Paris for the Cop 21 event in December [the shorthand name for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st Conference of the Parties]. He was working on this incredible Earth Crisis Globe under the Eiffel Tower. And then the Bataclan attacks happened. Four days later, he wanted to do a tribute by using French symbols: the Marianne figure; the French flag colors, blue, white and red; and the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. For Fairey, this work was a symbol of harmony and fraternity.

I understand that Fairey made a version of this canvas and gave it to Emmanuel Macron, who hung it in his office after he won the presidency. Is there any chance that the record-setting Fairey work is the one from Macron’s office? The first version of the canvas was purchased by a French collector who is a close friend of Emmanuel Macron. This work is a real symbol here, so this collector decided to loan the canvas to the president’s office. Our record-setting work was the second one, not the one from Macron’s office, which is always there.

What makes this Shepard Fairey work so powerful? Why is it such a successful design? This work is really compelling. I think there are two reasons. First, as I said earlier, is its symbolism in relation to the Bataclan. And then the image hung in our president’s office. It is really effective. It’s the reason that the prints from 2016 that originally sold for €70 [$60] can sell now for €6,000, and the reason that our buyer in November 2019, a business leader, purchased it for his company. It’s not so easy to answer your second question, but I think the composition of the work is very easy to understand. The wall in Paris with the same image is very impressive. The meaning is easy.

I searched for this piece in Fairey’s online archives and found two editions that resemble the record-setter, but do not match its size – both are smaller. What can you tell me about the 2018 version that set a record? Is it a one-off? If it’s not a one-off, how big was its limited edition? The work we sold, and which set a new world record in November 2019, is a different work. It’s a mixed media on canvas with spray paint, stencil, and collage. The image is the same visual in the two links on the artist’s website, but they are not the same work. The works shown in the links are prints, one in an edition of 450, and the other in an edition of 1,000. Shepard Fairey is a master of using the power of an image. He often develops the same image in different media: print, paper, wood, metal, and canvas. He wants the image to be seen by many people. Fairey created the second canvas version for an exhibition in Detroit in 2018. It was bought by a French collector.

I noticed there was a 2016 version of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité in the same November 2019 Artcurial auction, and it sold for far less than the record-breaker. Was the 2016 example one of the poster editions? Yes. That was a poster from an edition of 450. The record-setting work was an original canvas. These works are really very different, and the prices are really very different.

What is the Shepard Fairey work like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t quite capture? You can see more details on the work when you are physically in front of it. A stencil die stuck on the canvas creates depth in the work. But the essentials are the symbols – Marianne, the colors red, white and blue, and the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité motto – that you can see on the image.

While I have not seen this Shepard Fairey work in person, I did attend his 2009 show in Boston and saw a very large version of one of his Hope posters. I was surprised by the amount of visual texture it had – imagery that isn’t evident unless you get close to the real thing. Does the record-setting Shepard Fairey work have that same sort of visual texture? You’re totally right. There are many symbols in most of Fairey’s works. He is so very committed. The Obama Hope poster series and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are committed works which tell a story – a social, political story.

How many Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité images have you handled at Artcurial? Do you tend to sell more of this particular Shepard Fairey work than other auction houses? In the past, we’ve sold six Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité posters – the print editioned in 450 copies in 2016, and this version on canvas. So, seven works, with this image. I think we tend to sell more of this one than other auction houses for several reasons. This visual has a French theme, and it’s been seen often during President Macron’s speeches. And Artcurial has realized the best auction prices for Shepard Fairey. We have 10 of the 15 best prices in the world for him, according to Artnet. We have the current record for Fairey and the previous record. We have a very good database of collectors.

What was your role in the auction? I was the auctioneer of the sale. The buyer, who I know very well, was in the auction room, just in front of me.

What do you recall of the auction? How many bidders were there at the start, and how long did it take to drop to two? During this particular auction, the bids were very quick. We had six or seven bidders on the phone and in the room. They all wanted the work until it hit its high estimate. Maybe 30 seconds after the start, the bids reached €150,000 [about $169,200]. The auction continued between two persons until it reached €180,000 [$203,200], which was the final hammer price. [The complete price was €232,200, or $259,100.]

Were you surprised at how well the Shepard Fairey work did? What did you think it was going to sell for, and how close was that number to the final number? Surprised? Yes and no. I knew when I took this work on consignment that we could have a new record for Shepard Fairey. The image is already iconic. During the exhibition, I thought we could sell it for €120,000 to €150,000 [$135,500 to $169,200], which is a very important price for a Shepard work. But I did not think it would sell for €232,200. And during the bidding, when we reached €180,000, I dreamed of a €200,000 [$225,800] hammer price. €232,200, including fees, is a great price –nearly $260,000.

When did you know you had a world auction record for any work by Shepard Fairey? I knew it before the auction, in fact. During the exhibition, I knew that some collectors wanted to bid it up above the previous Shepard Fairey record. During the auction, we broke the record very quickly.

How long do you think this Shepard Fairey auction record will last? What other Shepard Fairey works out there could dethrone this one? It’s difficult to know. But now, with the COVID-19 situation, maybe things will change on the art market. Maybe the record won’t be broken immediately.

Why will this Shepard Fairey work stick in your memory? First, we broke the record for Shepard Fairey. That’s always an event for us, we did a good job. And I love Shepard Fairey’s works. I spent time with him three years ago, and he is very committed. His works are political, social and environmental.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.