When we talk about the art market, we are actually talking about an amalgamation of many varied sub-markets, each with their own specificities and fluctuations. Works by artists that routinely achieve prices in the eight-figure range are subject to different factors of influence than works by emerging artists getting their first major outing at a fair, which are subject to different factors than those in the middle made by well-established but not astronomically priced names. There are many shades of gray in between each one of these groups.
So, you might ask, what’s the point in even looking at the 100 most expensive artists to ever sell at auction? What can such a small sample of artists and even auction houses themselves tell us? As it turns out, quite a bit. The story told in the interactive infographic below is perhaps less one of the art world in its totality than it is a story of swings in the macroeconomic environment, shifts in business strategy, the ebb and flow of art’s role as an alternative asset class, the emergence of new economic superpowers, and changing taste.
Take, for example, the two lone records set prior to 1999 that still stand: Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Au moulin de la Galette (1876). The pair sold in one week in 1990 for $82.5 million and $78.1 million at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively. They remained the two most expensive works sold at auction until the 2006 sale of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) for $88 million. They are undeniably two of Impressionism’s most iconic works, each one currently hanging in the Musée d’Orsay.
But there’s more to the prices they achieved and their long tenure at the top of the market than meets the eye. Versions of both paintings were purchased by one Japanese businessman, Ryoei Saito. The collector paid nearly double the low estimate for each of the works, causing grumblings about an overheated market rife with speculation. Today, those read nearly indistinguishably from similar grumblings one year ago. Saito was no stranger to speculation. At the time of his purchases, his business, Japan’s second-largest paper company, was plummeting into extreme debt. It was not alone. Japan’s industrial sector had ground the country into an irrecoverable debt/GDP ratio. This led to the so-called Lost Decade of the country’s economy, which began one year after Saito’s art buying spree. Two years after that, the businessman too was under arrest.
Art, at this very tip-top of the market is in some sense the ultimate luxury good. And to the extent that it is an asset, it is a relatively illiquid one. The traditional laws of the auction market mean that a fresh- or rare-to-market work (meaning that it has never come to auction or has not in a significant amount of time) sold for $100 million today would rarely if ever achieve $100 million or more tomorrow. It’s in this way that the upper tip of the market plays just out of the reach of reason, to some extent. It is reliant on buyers going beyond what pundits and auction house experts say a work should fetch. This is, after all, why consignors are willing to let go of pieces in times other than the three Ds: death, divorce, and debt.
Buyers are generally most willing to do this when money is cheap and returns on capital astounding: The art market in the eight-figure range therefore generally follows in step with (and sometimes just one step ahead of) the upper reaches of capital and equity markets more broadly. Thus, we see Japan-bubble-like concentrations of artist records crop up once again during the Dot-Com Boom. And we see more still during the housing bubble of the last decade. By far the highest prices ever achieved took place from 2012 to 2015. Cheap money flooded the private markets to spur everything from Biotech to the App Economy. It also blossomed the bank accounts of innumerable hedgefunders hungry for uncommonly rare works.
But this is only one side of the coin. The auction houses, too, have cards to play when sourcing works and competing for consignments. As with any industry, when demand is high, the major players will go to much greater lengths and in some cases much further out on a limb to deliver particularly hard-to-obtain consignments.
In this very upper portion of the auction market, the major players are mainly Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Christie’s currently tops the portion of the sales that set the 100 most expensive artists’ latest auction record, at 47% of the total. That margin goes up to 80% when looking at the 10 most expensive artists’ records. Sotheby’s follows with 36% of the whole. But across the past quarter century of sales, that hasn’t always been the case. “Each auction house has been stronger or weaker at given points in time,” explained art adviser Todd Levin, owing to shifts in strategy and numerous changings of the guard at each house.
It’s a stark divide—just two out of the 100 most expensive artists at auction are women. The difference in price between the most expensive female and male artists is also vast; Georgia O’Keeffe’s auction record of $44.4 million for Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 (1932) is a quarter of the $179 million that was paid for Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1955) in 2015. The perpetuation of this gender gap is due to numerous factors.
One is historical. Even when significant numbers of women artists participated in a movement—take Abstract Expressionism, for example—they were largely ignored. The art historians, curators, critics, and gallerists of the day instead promoted their male counterparts, like Pollock and de Kooning, in shows and in reviews. This past prejudice is difficult, even impossible, to correct from the present day. Only recently have artists such as Agnes Martin and Alma Thomas been properly reintroduced into the historical narrative through long-overdue retrospectives. Their markets still lag far behind their male counterparts. Experts have also placed the blame on the way wealth is distributed between the genders. That is to say, the richest people in the world, those able to bid on eight- and nine-figure lots, are overwhelmingly male.
There’s no question that Western Europe is home to the majority of artists whose prices have launched them to the very top of the art market. Of the 100 most expensive artists at auction, 54% were born in the region. In pure volume, North America sits neck and neck with Asia, at 21% and 18%, respectively. Eastern European artists follow at 6%. One South American artist makes the list, Lucio Fontana. Since he is known more widely as Italian, some would argue that this is merely by technicality. Africa and Australia are not represented at all.
Breaking down the data further reveals that despite being in close competition by volume, North American-born artists still fetch much higher prices on the whole than their Asian counterparts. Of the top 20 most expensive artists at auction, only two—Qi Baishi and Wang Meng—are from Asia, and they come in low at 17 and 19. Five of the top 20 are of North American birth.
After two years of astronomical, double-digit growth, the post-war and contemporary art auction market took a bit of a tumble in 2015, contracting 14%, in comparison to a 7% contraction of the art market as a whole. According to the 2016 TEFAF Art Market Report, post-war and contemporary works nonetheless accounted for roughly 46% of the entire auction market by value last year—the largest of any sector.
Looking at the very top of the market over time, however, artists in the Impressionist and modern category continue to dominate. Of the 100 most expensive artists at auction, 35% come from this segment of the market. Post-war and contemporary artists do represent a relatively close second, at 27%, followed by Chinese Painting and Calligraphy at 17%. Old Masters appear rarely among the most expensive artists sold at auction, with only 13 artists from the time period cracking the list.
It will come as no surprise that painting dominates the most expensive works sold at auction. The medium represents nearly three-quarters of the works that set the 100 most expensive artists at auction’s records. That 18% of the pieces in our data set are works on paper, however, is slightly surprising. The Western art market generally doesn’t support a strong market for works on paper in comparison to their canvas counterparts due to preservation and condition issues, among others. But the medium’s market has benefitted from an influx of Asian buyers. Of the 18 works on paper in the top 100, all but three—a pastel by Edgar Degas, a drawing by Raphael, and a watercolor by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones—are the work of Asian artists. (Due to issues of non-payment in China, it is possible that the sales of some of these works weren’t fully realized.)
Sculpture comes last among the three mediums represented. However, these nine works don’t lag behind paintings in value. Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt (1947) comes in at number four, having sold for $141 million at Christie’s New York in 2015. And sculptures by Jeff Koons, Henri Matisse, and Constantin Brancusi all appear in the top 50.
The market’s recent fascination with young artists might fool one into believing that living artists’ prices would more routinely break into the upper echelons of the art market than they do. In fact, only eight of the top 100 artists at auction are still alive, and none are younger than 50 years old. That’s not to say that death automatically causes a spike in prices for an artist’s work. According to a recent study, the relationship is more complex than conventional wisdom suggests.
Overall, posthumous prices trend upward for well-established artists, but the rapidity of those changes depends partially on age. The older an artist and more mature their market at the time of death, the less obvious the subsequent rise in price. The biggest increase is seen for artists who pass away young—the prime example being Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose prices increased by some 350% in the five years following his death. The health of financial markets, more broadly, also plays a major role in determining posthumous prices. In the five years after Francis Bacon died, the value of his work fell by more than half as a result of the recession in the early 1990s.
In case there was any doubt, New York is the dominant city in the global art market for selling big ticket works. Among the 100 artists whose works top the list of most expensive pieces sold at auction, 56% set the record for their priciest work in the Big Apple. New York was also the site of every single sale currently in the top 10. London was second, serving as the home to 25% of the sales, while China (including Hong Kong) came in third at 18%.
But what explains New York’s undisputed place at the top of the heap? Frank Sinatra glory aside, it’s the major concentration of wealth in New York, said art adviser Todd Levin. “And not just people who live here full time, but even people who are outside of the city or outside of the country but also have either business interests and/or part time homes here.” An enormous amount of wealth is required for an individual to be liquid enough at any point in time to purchase works over the $20 million mark.
And while London is undoubtedly a major conduit of global capital, coming in second to New York in terms of financial and art market influence, “there’s a substantially smaller amount on a relative scale,” said Levin. That is both in terms of “the amount of actual money flowing through the City at the ultra-high-net-worth level and the number of people who control that money,” he added.
Data provided by Art Analytics.