What you need to know about Toyen – the sub-radar surreal genius whose market is rapidly gaining ground

Last week, a mysterious canvas of a little-known surrealist painter more than doubled his high estimate of selling for € 1.5 million ($ 1.7 million) at Sotheby’s Surrealism sale in Paris.

The remarkable result was obtained for a painting from 1966 with the title Secret room without lock (secret room without lock). Its artist, the Czech-born Marie Čermínová, took the name “Toyen” as a professional moniker in 1923. A few overlapping myths surround the renaming – some suggest that “Toyen” was derived from the French word “citoyen” meaning citizen , while others have suggested that it has been one play on the Czech “‘to je on”, meaning “it is he.”

Either way, Toyen was known for speaking Czech in the masculine singular form, refusing to use feminine endings when speaking in the first person. Gender and sexual policies are at the forefront of their work. The artist was associated with the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, which had close ties to French culture, and Toyen moved to Paris before the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. There, they moved in circles with the Paris Surrealist group, including André Breton and Annie Le Brun.

We wondered if the surprising result last week was a game of chance or a sign of a quietly growing market, led us to examine Toyen’s market performance using Artnet’s price database. Here’s what we found.

The context

Auction record: $ 3 million raised at the Czech auction house Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery in April 2021

The toy’s performance in 2021

Lots sold: 38

Bought in: 7

Resale rate: 84.4 percent

Average sale price: $ 272,282

Average estimate: $ 695,109

Total sales: $ 10.3 million

Top painting price: $ 3 million

Lowest painting price: $ 69,394

Lowest total price: $ 696, for a signed erasure from a 30 issue edition.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

  1. Tops and troughs. The toy’s market history is characterized by constant growth – with occasional bad years. The last significant moment in the artist’s market was between 2010 (the first year that Toyen’s work brought in more than $ 1 million in total sales) and 2015. But 2016 was a bad year for the market with an average sales rate of 33.3 percent and in total sales fell by 97.3 per cent. The market recovered the following two years and in 2018 reached its highest total sales since 2010 – only to be followed by another bad year in 2019, when total sales plummeted to the lowest level since 2007.
  2. Pandemic resistant. While many other artists’ markets suffered during the pandemic, buyers still went after Toyen, where the market reached $ 3.5 million in total sales, the highest level since 2010.
  3. Excellent moment. 2021 was the crucial year for Toyen’s market. Total sales rose to $ 10.3 million, representing a bump of 286 percent from 2020 – and more than the previous five years combined. Their auction record of $ 3 million was achieved in 2021 in a Czech provincial house.
  4. Potential for growth. Their work has consistently traded hands for more than its high estimates, suggesting it is still relatively undervalued. The Sotheby’s sale was the first significant amount the artist obtained at one of the main houses. Their work has been sold for more than $ 1 million six times, all in the last two years.
  5. Attracts attention. It seems that market interest is increasing, with 139 users searching for Toyen in Artnet’s price database in the past year.

Bottom line

Revived market interest in this obscure, gender-non-conformist artist is hardly surprising in 2022, when the market has increasingly reflected academic and curatorial interest in overlooked historical figures, especially women or non-binary artists.

Surrealism also has a moment, with a large surrealism exhibition that can be seen right now at the Tate (after debuting at the Met), and many of today’s contemporary art stars take inspiration from the surrealist aesthetic and the markets for many of the better known surrealists see a bump.

Based on what we know so far, both of these trends are expected to be combined at the upcoming Venice Biennale. Surrealism and emphasis on women and non-conformist artists are some of the consistent lines Cecilia Alemani has selected for her exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” – named after Leonora Carrington. Toyen is among the 213 artists participating in the exhibition.

The international visibility from this major art world event could bode well for the artist’s growing market. The opportunity for one of the largest auction houses to record the world record for Toyen’s work is far-reaching, which means we’ll likely see more work offered to the block outside the Czech Republic.

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