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20th century Italian art market the latest to feel the boom

[NEW YORK] When a work by Lucio Fontana sold at Christie's New York last month for US$29.2 million, it was the highest price the artist had ever achieved at auction. The giant, canary-yellow canvas was the latest in a string of broken records: five of Fontana's top 10 auction sales of all time were in 2015, according to Artnet.

In one respect, Fontana's rise should surprise few familiar with the art world. Twentieth century Italian art, which includes the recently wildly popular postwar Arte Povera movement, has been on a boom for close to a decade. In fact, in October, sales in London dedicated specifically to 20th century Italian art at Christie's and Sotheby's did so well that there can be few doubts about the movement's ascendancy.

What is new, however, is postwar Italian art's position in the highest echelons of the art world's prestigious postwar and contemporary evening sales. Just five years ago you wouldn't have seen a Fontana in one of those. As recently as 2010, says Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group in New York,  prices for those paintings in private sales "topped out at US$2 to US$2.5 million. And they were really a hard sell." The cheapest of Fontana's top 10 lots to sell at auction this past year, in contrast, was US$10.3 million.

And while Fontana may be an outlier in terms of price point, Mr Levin suggests he represents the proverbial tip of the Italian iceberg. "You've already seen significant jumps in a lot of the Zero and Arte Povera artists' markets," he points out, referring to a European-wide avant-garde movement in the 1960s.

Multiple dealers who sell works from the period agree-the public just may not know about it, because that some major pieces have yet to come to auction.

A large-scale work by Alberto Burri, currently the subject of a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, can now sell privately for "more than US$10 million, if it's monumental and one of the best." says Daniella Luxembourg, the co-owner of the gallery Luxembourg and Dayan, which has locations in New York and London. In contrast, the highest price paid at auction for a Burri was achieved last year at Christie's in London, when his Combustione Plastica sold for US$7.7 million. In other words, the price increases for these Italian 20th century works haven't revealed themselves to the wider world, yet.

"In the last five years, there wasn't a monumental Burri at auction, most of them were sold privately," Luxembourg says. "It just happened, just in the same way that that it also happened that the last Fontanas that sold at auction were big. Those works sold privately before." "In a way," she continues, "the private market is the forerunner of the auction houses." If that's true, then get ready for many more 20th century Italian works at auction. Currently, Luxembourg's gallery has two solo shows of midcentury Italian artists- the neo-avant- gardeist Enrico Baj in New York, and the Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti, in London- and the downtown gallery Sperone Westwater is currently showing a massive group show of midcentury Italian art, Painting in Italy 1910s-1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art, on view through January 23rd.

"It's not the beginning, but it's not the end of the game," says Gian Enzo Sperone, who spent two years organizing the current show at Sperone Westwater. "The prices I paid three years ago are already doubling now. In a couple of years it could be three times, four times more."

In comparison with the multi-million dollar Arte Povera sales, Sperone's exhibition, comprised primarily of art from a generation earlier, is decidedly more affordable. Almost all of the show's 120 artworks range from US$20,000 to US$110,000. The two exceptions are for work by Enrico Prampolini, whose prices in the show range from US$80,000 to US$140,000, and Giacomo Balla, one of the Italian Futurism movement's most famous proponents.