The French database attests to contemporary art’s encroachment on the auction market over two decades.
The new Artprice report (75 pages, including around 50 of analysis) confirms that contemporary art is the market’s most buoyant sector. Relatively non-existent at the beginning of the new millennium, contemporary art has transformed the market, its geographic balance, auctions and even the sociology of collectors. Nothing seems to stand in its way. Sales rose by 200% from less than $100,000,000 in 2000 to nearly two billion in 2019, although that is below the $2.4 billion peak reached in 2014. In all, $22.7 billion were exchanged for these works over two decades and the sector’s share of the auction market rose from just 3% of the total in 2000 to 15%. This growth involves not just sales figures but also the amount of lots sold (multiplied by 10, 123,000 works presented in 2019), the number of active countries (doubled) and the average price (+240%, $25,000). The number of operators rose from 470 to 840. Even commissions have “progressed”, reaching 20% of the hammer price (14% in 2000).
The report focuses on the biggest winners, Basquiat and Koons, who have absolutely polarized the sector, accounting for 12% of the total contemporary art market. If Christopher Wool and Damien Hirst are added, nearly 20% of the market is in the “hands” of four artists. The Top 100 account for 75% of total sales even though over 30,000 visual artists sell their works at auctions. What’s more, just seven women are in the Top 100. The pieces’ “age” does not seem to affect prices much: works created between 1981 and 2013 sold for more or less similar sums.
Artprice also reports that China has won a place in the sun. As early as 2011-2012, it already sold twice as much contemporary art as all of Europe, including the United Kingdom. Today, after the Anglo-American Big Three (which still post 69% of total sales) the next seven are all Chinese, accounting for 13.6% of global sales. Moreover, 395 of the 1,000 artists who sold the most are Chinese, while “only” 165 are American and 26 French.
China continues to be a contemporary art locomotive (2019 was Hong Kong’s best year), but other places have been less successful. After a decade of activity starting in 2007 (topping $15 m in annual sales only in 2013), the Arabian Peninsula (represented by Sotheby’s in Doha and Christie’s in Dubai) has virtually dropped off the contemporary art map. Local tensions and the retrenchment of operators on the most important hubs seem to have outweighed various attempts to open the market up.
Painting and the rest
Some critics and curators predicted the end of painting, but the facts prove otherwise. In 2019 this medium accounted for 65%—$1.4 billion—of the contemporary art market. Sculpture ranked second with 16% of total sales, 10% of lots sold and Koons as the standard-bearer. Photography, whose total sales were still trifling in 2000—$17 m—took off in 2007 and topped $100 m for the first time. The number of pictures sold quadrupled, approaching 5,000 in 2019. The average price is still modest, which makes photography an entry-level medium for first-time collectors: half the photos sold for less than $2,000. Ironically, Koons is both the author and the subject of the most expensive photograph ever sold, The New Jeff Koons (1980), which fetched $9.4 m in New York.
Zombies and parasites
Thierry Ehrmann and his report do not gloss over the dark sides of contemporary art, including what Walter Robinson dubbed in 2014 Zombie Formalism: artists with relatively similar styles whose paintings were bought by certain collectors and then quickly resold at auctions for much higher prices. Stefan Simchowitz, the embodiment of this practice, whom Le Monde called a “contemporary art shark” in 2015, specialized in ultra-quick flips. But galleries caught on and some of these artists fell into oblivion as quickly as they rose to fame: between 2014 and 2016 the value of works by Dan Cohen fell by 97%, Lucien Smith 95%, Alex Israël 94%, Jacob Kassay 89%, Oscar Murillo 85% and Christian Rosa 82%. But flipping apparently continues in other “trendy” niches, such as African contemporary art. For example, in 2015 Simchowitz bought several works by Tschabalala Self (born 1990), selling them for $164,000, $301,000 and then $338,000 at Phillips in 2019. In February that year, he opportunely sold Amoako Boafo’s The Lemon Bathing Suit (finished less than nine months earlier) in London for $881,000 after having bought it for $25,000 the summer before. That price puts an end to any institutional market-building possibility, especially since this was the Ghanaian artist’s first work to be auctioned.
The triumph of “light” art
Another trend is the prominence of a pop or “light” esthetic on the contemporary art market. Without making any value judgments about collectors’ aesthetics, philosophy or taste, many commentators share this observation. In any case, a clear and indisputable sign of the times is Christie’s organization of a sale that clearly stated what it was about. With only around 15 lots, the unabashedly entitled “Hi-Lite” auction presented, in Christie’s words, works with “a neo-pop aesthetic […] highlighting artists that share elements of a similar visual style: bold flattened forms, bright colors and images appropriated from popular media […] influenced by trends including Japanese manga, street art, commercial design and fashion.” Result: HK$88.7 m ($11.3 m) and the emergence of a shameless “new culture”.
Artprice does not just look back at the past two decades but also updates us to the particularly unusual present. Its report shows that the first half of 2020 saw an unprecedented drop in activity, which fell to 2006 levels (around $300 m). The new situation has brought about, or, more likely, sped up, the shift towards the Internet already underway. In April, $6.4 m of Sotheby’s sales took place virtually, including $1.3 m for George Condo’s Antipodal Reunion (2005). After this first success, the auction house enhanced the “quality” of the works presented online, selling a Bacon triptych in late June for $24.5 m (outside contemporary art). It looks as if the online genie is out of the bottle. The new report breaks down many open doors, but through a mixture of specific examples and macroeconomic analyses Artprice analyzes the signals emitted by the trends behind the figures, which are certainly enriching.