‘The rich have got much richer’: why art sale prices are going through the roof

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Untitled’

Auction houses are recording a boom in sales after a return to pre-pandemic levels of supplies of works

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

As a straight return on investment, it’s hard to beat “Untitled”, a 1982 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the African American street artist who became a global cultural icon, featuring a horned African mask on an abstract background across a canvas almost 5m wide.

In 2004, the painting sold for $4.5m. Back on the market 12 years later, it fetched $57.3m, then a record for a Basquiat. This week, it went under the hammer in New York for $85m (£68m), including fees, to a buyer from Asia.

The Basquiat sale comes amid extraordinary sums paid for artworks. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn by Andy Warhol – Basquiat’s rival and sometime friend – sold for a staggering $195m earlier this month, and three paintings by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne fetched a total of almost $166m on Tuesday.

The second sale this week of works in the Macklowe collection – a court-ordered auction as part of an acrimonious divorce settlement between octogenarians Harry and Linda Macklowe – realised $246m. Total sales from the couple’s remarkable collection, which included works by Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, came to more than $922m.

‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ by Andy Warhol
‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ by Andy Warhol which sold for $195m earlier this month. Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA

Another stellar collection of 12 works, including Monet’s Le Parlement, soleil couchant, that belonged to the late Anne Bass brought in $363m last week.

Sales of impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art at the main New York auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips – have raised more than $2bn this month, reported art market research company ArtTactic. Sotheby’s New York sales topped $1bn this week alone, with strong activity from Asia and online.

At a time of geopolitical uncertainty, soaring inflation and falling stock prices, the art market is beyond booming. The explosion is fuelled by a combination of an unusual number of highly desirable works becoming available, and an increase in those who can afford to buy them.

“The rich have got much richer,” said art market specialist and author Georgina Adam, pointing to Forbes’ tally of more than 700 new billionaires across the world in the past couple of years. “And if you’re mega-rich, there aren’t that many things you can acquire that are real trophies, that nobody else can have. Art is a real trophy.”

Anders Petterson, ArtTactic’s founder, said there was also an investment element to acquisitions by ultra-high net worth individuals. “After the financial crisis [in 2008], we saw people wanting to put their money into tangible assets. We’re seeing an element of that again now.”

A woman poses in front of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femme nue couchée’ during the New York press preview of Sotheby’s Macklowe collection’s spring auction. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Art was “seen as somewhere safe to put your money,” said Adam. “At the top end of the market, the returns can be colossal. What other investment can offer these sorts of returns?”

The demographic profile of buyers is changing. Almost a quarter of the total bid value for works from the Macklowe collection came from Asia. Monet’s Les Arceaux des Roses was sold this week by Sotheby’s to an Asian buyer for $23.3m. The auction house has also seen record-high participation from young and new collectors.

“It’s really pronounced – and they’re not only buying cutting edge, contemporary works but also established works,” said Brooke Lampley, chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art at Sotheby’s.

The other half of the equation was supply, she said. “During the pandemic, there was a dearth of works to sell because of uncertainty about the resilience of the market. A lot of people chose to wait.

“This season, we’re seeing the first real return to pre-pandemic supply levels, and a variety of consignors electing to sell great works of art. And that has attracted a strong and healthy demand.”

Easier access to auctions online is also fuelling higher demand for works. Christie’s auctioneer ends the auction of ‘Le Parlement, soleil chouchant’ by Claude Monet for $66m, at the gavel during the sale of works from the collection of Anne Bass. Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA

The market is also becoming more accessible, thanks to online auctions. This week, for the first time, Sotheby’s broadcast live on Instagram its sale of modern art, attracting nearly 20,000 viewers. Auction houses, which were forced online at the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, have embraced digital platforms such as TikTok, Facebook Live and YouTube.

“It has opened channels to a whole new demographic,” said Petterson. The only way to witness an art auction in the past was to brave an exclusive, highly privileged and often intimidating group. “Now you can sit in front of your screen at home to watch this theatrical spectacle. It definitely drives interest.”

Whether the current spate of blockbuster sales continues remains to be seen. “So much is driven by exceptional works of art coming to market,” said Lampley. “If that continues next season, then I expect the market will show up for it. But if the unusually plentiful supply this season withers, we might see a different reaction.”

Other factors could come into play, said Petterson. “Confidence in the market is really high, but we have to be careful not to think it’s immune to what’s happening elsewhere in the world.

“We’re going into a period where people are suffering in terms of food on the table, the price of electricity and gas. There might come a point where it becomes difficult to justify paying these prices.”

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