Born in London in 1958, Julian Opie studied at Goldsmiths School of Art under the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. Opie rose to fame in 2000, when he was commissioned to create the cover album for Blur: The Best Of, bringing his instantly recognisable style to the general public. But in addition to his iconic portraits, Opie creates paintings of animals, landscapes and people in motion – with his nudes and walking scenes among the most sought-after by collectors. Here we take a look at some of Opie’s most popular works on the secondary market and recent top results at auction.
Depicted in paintings, sculpture, prints and moving LED lights, Opie’s artworks of nudes and women undressing are among his most frequent themes. It is also the most popular subject with his collectors: Woman posing in underwear.1 stands as the most expensive work by Opie at auction. When it was offered at Christie’s in New York on 1 March 2018, it achieved over four times its high estimate. Previously owned by a California-based collector, the painting is also a rare example of Opie’s artwork offered outside of the UK – all his other top prices at auction were achieved in London sales – which suggests the artist’s growing international appeal and market.
Standing almost 3 metres tall, This is Sara 1 is one of two paintings, drawn on glass, that Opie made of Sara in 2004. Like Woman posing in underwear.1, the work is a classic example of Opie’s signature, graphic style and an exploration of his interest in the female form in motion. When it was offered at Christie’s in London on 15 October 2011, This is Sara 1 sold for over £91,000 against a high estimate of £25,000.
In 2006, Opie became interested in depicting strippers, who could provide him with “more dynamic poses”. Shahnoza posed for him over two days – Opie reportedly took over 2,000 photographs, in addition to films – creating 31 paintings of Shahnoza dancing for his This is Shahnoza series in 2006, followed 16 more for a series of the same name in 2007. Of these, This is Shahnoza 07 fetched the highest price at auction when it was offered at Sotheby’s in London on 6 March 2019 – more than doubling its pre-sale high estimate.
Opie’s larger-than-life nudes have consistently soared past their high estimates and their prices are on the rise. A decade ago, Sara Gets Undressed and Woman taking off summer dress. 06. – both estimated at £20,000–30,000 – sold for £82,850 and £79,250 at Christie’s on 1 July 2010 and 15 October 2010 respectively. Eight years later, a similar nude titled Sarah, Arabesque 2 realised £81,250 in Christie’s Post-War to Present auction on 28 June 2018. This year, at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction in London on 12 February 2020, Opie’s Female Nude Standing Hands Behind achieved £87,500, more than double its high estimate of £35,000.
Alongside nudes, Opie’s depictions of people walking or running are among his best-known works. The artist has captured pedestrians around the world, from London and New York to Melbourne and Seoul. Often hiring a photographer or asking his assistants to photograph people on the street, Opie is attracted to the unpredictability of the characters he will come across. “Each one throws up surprises and opportunities that I could not invent – a tattoo or a tasselled dress, a goatee or the logo on a T-shirt,” he has said.
Red Socks and Chanel Bag, painted in 2015, was donated by Opie to Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction in London on 2 July 2015, with proceeds going to benefit Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. The painting sold for over three times its high estimate, possibly aided by its provenance and charitable cause.
In this work, two fashionable women cross each other on the street, yet are unaware of each other’s presence as they stare at their phones. This lack of awareness and self-consciousness is what Opie finds most appealing about using pedestrians as models. “Instead of seeming to pose for the viewer, they walk on by without a glance, coolly ignoring you and thus allowing you to stare,” he said. Like Red Socks and Chanel Bag, made in the same year, Paisley Dress and Red Gown is characteristic of Opie’s walking scenes – the work realised £87,500 in Christie’s London auction on 26 June 2019, more than double its low estimate of £35,000.
Created in 2001, Sam, schoolboy is the most expensive portrait by Opie at auction, and the highest price achieved for the artist at Phillips. When it was offered in their London auction on 11 April 2019, Sam, schoolboy realised almost three times its low estimate of £30,000.
“I aimed to make a kind of rubber stamp for every face, a universal logo for each person I saw,” Opie has said of his portraits, which references the Pop Art characters of Roy Lichtenstein and the bold, minimalist lines of Patrick Caulfield. Since establishing his distinctive style of portraiture, Opie has painted family and friends as well as received commissions from individuals and celebrities.