Figurative Painting’s Market Boom, in 5 Charts

Though immensely popular for most of history, figurative art experienced a bit of a lull in the 20th century while abstraction and those who championed it dominated the market. But in recent years there appears to be a major shift back towards representational art as young figurative artists garner increased attention and appearances in major exhibitions.

The 10 Most Important Takeaways from the 2016 TEFAF Art Market Report

 Amid this renaissance of sorts, we took a look at the data* to see if the underlying market performance for contemporary figurative artists echoed the accolades. What we found is a dramatic increase in works of figurative art appearing and selling at auction. Though, like much of the art market at the moment, much of the value created from that boom in sales can be attributed to a few big-name, predominantly male painters.



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The figurative art market has experienced a boom in the last decade. In the early 2000s, annual auction sales within our dataset fell consistently below the $10 million-dollar mark. Since 2006 they haven’t fallen below it. There has been some fluctuation in values, especially around the time of the 2008 recession. Indeed, in 2009, mid-market sales (those between $100,000 and $1 million) took a major hit, though they’ve been essentially consistent since then. Interestingly, aside from that year, the fluctuation in the market comes from big-ticket figurative paintings—those selling for prices in excess of $1 million. While total sales last year show a decrease from 2014, in step with a 7% decline in the market at large, they’re still above that of that of 2013.



What this graphic tells us:

Over the last decade or so, the overall volume of contemporary figurative painting appearing at auction exploded, more than quintupling. Yet while the number of lots of figurative art has increased in terms of raw volume, there is no clear sign of a devaluation, suggesting that demand is at least on pace with supply. The boom in both the number and value of figurative works appearing at auction jibes with increased interest on the primary market for works by figurative painters once again, particularly younger artists like Mira Dancy, Sanya Kantarovsky, Dana Schutz, and Michael Williams, who have all garnered acclaim.



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Zooming in on the overall sales figures to the number of auction lots per artist, one finds that a few big names are dominating the figurative art auction block: Alex Katz, George Condo, Peter Doig, and Elizabeth Peyton make up roughly 80% of contemporary figurative artists brought to market in our dataset. Katz, an octogenarian artist who still works every day, accounts for more than a third of all auction lots. Despite the fact that Katz’s early work was met with scorn by multiple art critics, including Clement Greenberg, he and others like Alice Neel are widely credited with aiding the contemporary revival of figurative art and are cited by young artists today as sources of important influence. 



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One might expect Katz’s dominance in terms of lots offered to translate into a majority of market turnover. Yet Katz is responsible only for $33 million—or just 7%—of the total volume, making him come in fourth when artists are sorted by performance at auction by value. Above him are John Currin ($50 million), George Condo ($52 million), and Peter Doig ($240 million). Katz’s prolific output and the significant presence of his major works on the primary market—compared to those of Doig and Currin in particular—could account for this lower average price among lots sold at auction in recent years. Much the same could be said for Condo, whose prices and demand have risen remarkably in recent years, with paintings routinely fetching well into the mid- to upper six figures at art fairs. 



What this graphic tells us:

When it comes to average prices at auction, Peter Doig is far and away the biggest name among today’s prominent figurative painters. His average lot price hovers at a respectable $1 million—more than double the $438,053 average of the next closest artist, John Currin. Doig’s high average is due both to the relatively few works of his that have come up for sale and the several that have sold for over $10 million at auction in the last decade. In 2007, his work White Canoe (1990-1991) set the auction record for most expensive work by a European living artist when it sold for $11.3 million. The record only lasted for a few months, but Doig’s market has continued to grow since then. His current most expensive artwork, Swamped (1990), sold for $23 million just last year. In fact, of the 60 paintings by contemporary figurative painters that sold for more than $1 million, 37 were by Doig and 15 were by Currin.



—Artsy Editors


*data provided by Art Analytics based on a representative sample of sales since 2000

Cover image: Alex Katz, Double White Band (Vivien), 2013. Image courtesy of Javier Lopez & Fer Frances.