The Top 10 Auction Artists of 2015

Robin Rile Fine Art
Aug 10, 2016 9:54PM

2015 marked a year of record-breaking sales in art auctions, and emerging trends that assured the successes of many artists on our top ten list. This past year saw the stabilization of the art market in the West, and a slight contraction in the East. Despite the somewhat tempestuous global economic and financial conditions, the Fine Art market sprung forward as a popular investment opportunity. In 2015 alone, Western art auctions generated $11.2 billion. The United States reclaimed their dominant position within the global Art Market from China for the first time in five years and the market further expanded into the realm of the digital, with the Internet and online art sales becoming a chosen medium for researching and purchasing works around the world.

In looking at the artists given a place on our list, commonalities about market trends and preferences can be gleaned. Old masters make no appearance, as they have become increasingly scarce, while a voracious demand for 19th century art of the European vanguard continued, with master artists of the period such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin seeing particular successes. Post-War artists saw incredible growth of 308% in price inflation over the past 10 years, becoming one of the most prevalent and demanded groups of artists on our list. With a more affordable market that meets all budgets, purchasing art as financial investment can no longer be considered a capricious whim. Art is a viable long-term investment, with carefully considered collections representing credible financial portfolios.


Roy Lichtenstein saw his best-ever annual turnover in 2015, which placed him on the same list as his Pop Art movement counterpart, Andy Warhol. Similar to Warhol is the artist’s affinity for screen print works, which compose about 87% of the artists market by volume and can vary in price from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. Price inflation has even applied to Lichtenstein’s prints, as demonstrated in the sale of Monet tribute “Water Lily Pond with Reflections” that fetched $742,000—far exceeding its $300,000 estimate. His best auction result of 2015 was for “Nurse”; a painting that sold for $95.4 million, set a new record for the artist, and placed fourth worldwide as the best art auction result in the world. Despite his Pop Art successes Lichtenstein originally worked as a cubist, and was highly interested in Abstract Expressionism. However after his son taunted him about not being able to paint as well as the Mickey Mouse cartoons, Lichtenstein took up the challenge and was forever influenced by popular culture. With a price index of over 100% and rising, in addition to his induction into the exclusive club of artists that have sold above the $100 million threshold, Lichtenstein’s market looks to only expand in the future along with the popularity of other Post-War artists.


Known as one of the most important and influential Italian artists, it comes as no surprise that Lucio Fontana makes an appearance on 2015’s top ten list. Following the burgeoning interest in Post-War Italian artists, Lucio Fontana’s annual turnover increased over 120%. The canvas slashing artist saw his best year in 2015 with five results over the $10 million dollar threshold. Prices have risen 380% since 2000, with capital gains potential on his works currently in the millions of dollars. Yet the perforated canvases of the “Concetto Spaziale” series for which the artist is so well-known, did not provide the most impressive results of the year. Ovoid works by the artist saw favorable outcomes with two sales that generated over $53 million dollars—a quarter of the artist’s entire annual total! Works from Fontana’s “” series are now worth 15 times more than they were 10 years ago, and much more rare than his works of infamous lacerations. A Fontana best record was set by the sale of a “La Fine Di Dio” series work by Christie’s that garnered over $29.1 million dollars.


Although his annual turnover fell 22% in 2015, Mark Rothko was no less successful this past year with his third best annual profit, and his second highest auction result after the acclaimed “Orange, Red, Yellow”. “No. 10” sold for $86.8 million—the world’s fifth highest art auction result of 2015. With his famous colorfields becoming rarities and unwavering demand for Rothko works, it is unlikely that the artist’s success and popularity will diminish. Regardless of the acclaim for his colorfields, Rothko claimed he was disinterested in color, and in typical Abstract Expressionist fashion he believed more in color’s abilities to invoke an individualized emotional experience. Rothko’s art is emotionally moving, visually compelling, and timelessly associated with the advent of a distinctly American Art style as noted by famed art critic, Clement Greenberg. The popularity of Rothko’s works speak for themselves in their abilities to elicit such demand and consistent interest.


If any artist on the list was a particular success this year, Cy Twombly would easily take the title with a market that has been skyrocketing in price and popularity over the last few years. “Untitled (New York City)” was sold for $70.6 million this year—fetching more than “La Gommeuse” a rare Picasso Blue Period masterpiece. Larry Gagosian, acclaimed art dealer, seemed to be ahead of the masses in his prediction of Twombly’s success. Gagosian had his galleries feature the artist as early as the 1980s, and as current as 2015. Despite being nicknamed “Cy” after the famous baseball pitcher Cy Young, and serving as a code breaker in the U.S. army, Twombly always found time for innovative practices in his art. During his time in the army he produced his automatic drawings under the bedcovers at night. Twombly’s turnover was up 55% in 2015, and his price index has rose to an impressive increase of 340% in the past five years. Five of his works in the past year sold for over $10 million dollars. Such successes have put him ahead of other acclaimed Abstract Expressionists favorites such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still.


2015 was the year Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” was finally dethroned as the best result in art auction history, after two years of holding the record. As Picasso and Modigliani overtook Bacon’s records, the artist moved down to the sixth position on the list, with an accompanying fall of 24% in the artist’s annual revenue. Overly optimistic price estimates following Bacon’s impressive triptych sale resulted in a stagnant market where even top buyers saw the Bacon price inflation as far too absurd. “Study for a Pope I” failed to reach its $39 million dollar low estimate, with an increase of $29 million placed on the work in just ten years. Yet the Bacon market is far from failing, and prices have begun to stabilize. “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” sold for an impressive $47.7 million—with a still inflated price of about $14.1 million. Present successes would highly please the artist in his well-deserved recognition. Plagued by insecurities during his advent of art-making, Bacon destroyed much of his early work.


As Picasso indisputably leads the Art Market in painting, so Alberto Giacometti leads the market in the medium of sculpture. In 2014 the artist attained the highest result in Fine Art actions with the $100.9 million dollar sale of sculpture “Le Chariot”. In 2015, the artist further outdid himself with the $141.2 million dollar sale of “L’homme au doigt” (Pointing man), which became the world’s most expensive sculpture after skyrocketing past its $11 million dollar estimate in mere minutes. The elongated and haunting qualities of his bronze figures reflect Giacometti’s nostalgic interest in the classical bronzes of the past, and the existential realizations that lead him towards a more transcendental representation of the figure modeled after his fascination with the human shadow. Six other copies of the same bronze reside at MoMA and the Tate, among other highly regarded institutions. 2015 was a year of both unusual and record breaking successes for Giacometti, with 14% of his lots reaching over the million-dollar threshold.


An artist that believed in continual suffering in order to supplement his creative growth, and known as the “Prince of Vagabonds”, Amedeo Modigliani’s emotional and sensational life seemed to predict the later dramatic frenzy that would surround the sale of his fierce and expressive works.The Italian artist makes an impactful appearance in the top five, despite his relatively small volume of works as compared to his friends such as Picasso, Braque, Cezanne, and Brancusi. A large amount of Modigliani’s works was either lost or burned, resulting in a mythical element of intrigue and rarity, leading to the pricing ascent in his work. 2015 posted a positive turnover of 125% as compared to 2014. Such a spike in the artist’s success was spearheaded by the sales of two major works, “Paulette Jourdain” (Sotheby’s) and “Reclining Nude” (Christie’s). Together the works composed 85% of his 2015 revenue—totaling at $213.2 million dollars. The portrait of “Paulette Jourdain” sold for $42.8 million; a tiny price compared to the $170.4 million dollar price of “Reclining Nude”. “Reclining Nude” became the second most expensive artwork ever sold at auction in 2015 behind Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (version ‘O’)”.“Reclining Nude”, arguably one of the most famous 20th century artworks, was selected by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for his museum, the Long Museum in Shanghai.


Claude Monet continues to be a market staple, as one of the most popular, recognizable, and impressionable Impressionists to both the pedestrian and academic eye. Twelve works in 2015 sold for above $10 million dollars, in turn with an annual increase of 24% in just 36 lots! Auction powerhouses Christie’s and Sotheby’s consider Monet a cornerstone in their portfolios; with Sotheby’s selling “Grand Canal” at the start of the year for $36.5 million, and featuring the artist in six out of 63 lots in their major May Impressionist and Modern Art Sale. An intriguing selling point in the artist’s continued popularity is his influence on the later Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock. Such associations keep Monet relevant for American investors who see him as more valuable due to his involvement with the extremely lucrative and popular Abstract Expressionist artists. Of the six paintings at the Sotheby’s show, “Bassin aux Nympheas, les Rosiers” took the highest price at $54 million. Although the artist’s works on the market are becoming increasingly sparse, the artist’s high volume of works provide no indication of his market shrinking anytime soon. (In his last 30 years, Monet painted 250 oil paintings). Monet’s regular appearance on the top ten artists list does not look to disappear anytime soon, with a price index rising over 382% in the past decade.


It comes as no surprise that the artist having once said, “Making money is art, and working is art and goodbusiness is the best art”  comes in second on our list of lucrative successes. Despite having lost his frontrunner status, Andy Warhol’s numbers predict a steady rise and most likely a repetition of his frontrunner position on the list in the future. A major 2015 sale was a $47.5 million dollar portrait of Mao—47 times the price paid for the work in 1996.  Another $56.1 million dollar sale of “Colored Mona Lisa” became the eighth most expensive work by the Pop icon. However the future market cannot easily be predicted with a rare price drops as seen in the 2015 sale of Warhol’s “Four Marilyns” that sold for $36 million after the sale of the same work for over two million less in 2013. Reason for the Price of Pop’s top position displacement lies in the forty works that failed to sell in 2015—resulting in a 20% percent decrease since last year. Among the disappointing sales was “Self Portrait (Nine Times)” which failed to reach its estimate range of $8-10 million. An important fact to note about the artist’s economy is his that 40% of the Warhol market is priced under $1,000 dollars; mostly the artist’s plentiful screen printed lithographs, or Marilyn faces painted on ceramics. Nevertheless, 2015 stands out as the second best auction total for the artist; and the increasing popularity of Pop and Post-War artists only indicates further interest and competition in the artist’s market.

For the artist suspected in 1911 for potentially stealing the Mona Lisa, and whose first word was “pencil”, it comes as no surprise that Pablo Picasso tops the list with an incredible annual profit of $650 million. Picasso toppled Andy Warhol from his market leading position in 2014 as a result of a series of increasing profitable transactions in 2015 that only look to continue rising. “Les femmes d’Alger (Version O)” set an all time auction record this year for $179.3 million; and set another record for the artist in becoming his third painting to cross above the $100 million threshold. Art collectors Victor and Sally Ganz originally bought the entire “Les femmes d’Alger” series of paintings in Paris in 1956 for $212,500, selling several shortly thereafter to offset their substantial investment. The series paid homage to Eugene Delacroix, an artist that Picasso greatly admired, but also were dedicated to his friend and rival Henri Mattise whose death in 1954 shook Picasso into a desperation to re-examine the past. The female figures in this painting depict women of the orient in a harem and mark one of the high points in Pablo Picasso’s career. Picasso’s prices continue to skyrocket seen in concrete results such as consistent demand, and a 177% increase in his price index since 2000. It comes as no surprise that art’s most ubiquitous name has risen to the top of the list once more.




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Robin Rile Fine Art