The converging factors that dominate the current art market, which has shown considerable stabilization this year, are especially highlighted by two key developments.
Although a full month remains until the conclusion of the first half of 2021 — and June will see some auction highlights as well — the main attractions of an eventful couple of months are behind us and call for some review. Whereas H1 2020 marked the onset of uncertainty amid an outbreak of a global pandemic, this year’s H1 represented the opposite, with the beginning of the end of Covid-dominated life and an increasingly strengthening and stabilizing market the more the year progressed. Several key stats, however, best elucidate how several circumstances came together to define the current direction of the global art trade.
By far the most prominent figure of 2021 is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dominating the high end of the market, Basquiats were among the top lots in virtually every big sale since March from New York to Hong Kong and count three of the ten top lots of the year, four among the top fifteen. The American street artist was by no means a stranger to that segment before, highlighted by the fact that neither his single-lot record nor his yearly high have been broken (yet), and the appearance of several of his masterpieces comes to no surprise. Following the unprecedented social upheavals last summer, especially in the US, any astute collector was aware that this moment presents fertile ground for price surges of valued works by the Black artist who dealt with said subject in his art already 40 years ago. The private purchase of the monumental Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump for over $100 million by Ken Griffin last June was a clever and swift opportunistic buy by the billionaire, and it was a precursor of what would happen in the secondary market once the latter showed indications of stabilization following the pandemic. Furthermore, economic woes proved not only to spare the richer parts of society — on the contrary, the well-off seem to have grown their wallets and they’re ready to allocate funds to blue-chip art. The only artist that shows even higher sales numbers this year is Pablo Picasso, yet no small part of his total $261.3 million must be allocated to the sheer size of sold lots, incomparable with Basquiat’s. Picasso’s figure spreads over 1451 lots, whereas Basquiat’s $252.8 million total is divided by just 49 works. The trajectory also plays no small role: the latter is now competing with his strongest yearly performances, while Picasso is recovering from a weak last year but still way off his highs.
Narrative plays a crucial role here, and Basquiat’s life and creation fits like a glove on our times. Other disenfranchised parts of society, like women or LGBTQ artists have also seen price increases over the past few years and especially works by women have seen significant demand last year, and will likely continue to surge, yet their lack of a single outstanding representative on whom the narrative can converge, and whose oeuvre already enjoyed such high prestige regardless, means that demand is spread out over several individuals and is therefore less impactful. But the effects can be felt especially in the newcomer segment as well, where women, Blacks and LGBTQ artists attract investor-driven demand and result in unprecedented “gold rushes.” The only question mark surrounding all of this is how enduring narrative-based art is and how many of the current rising stars (and their prices) will still be relevant a decade or two from now.
Which brings us to the second point: Asia. Frieze just announced a new fair in Seoul in 2022, and Thaddaeus Ropac also recently unveiled plans for a new gallery there, those just being the most recent developments. The strength of Asian collectors and the importance of the Eastern market comes to no surprise either, but the extent of the transferal of even Western art towards Hong Kong might. Every couple of months now produce a new record of a Western artwork sold in Asia (Basquiat’s Warrior being the last one), and vast amounts of sales occurring in the Western Hemisphere are attributed to Asian buyer’s as well, especially now that those sales are increasingly going online. And even so, the big auction houses are focusing much of their attention on Hong Kong, where marquee sales are already featuring as many if not more Western artists than Asian ones. New York is of course still the prime hub for the secondary market, but Hong Kong is further cementing its second place with every passing year. In the first five months of this year, Christie’s sold a total of $926 million in fine art in New York, $341 million in Hong Kong, $298 in London and just $42.5 million in Paris. In the same order, Sotheby’s sold just over a billion dollars in New York, $332 million in Hong Kong, $224 million in London and $86.6 million in Paris. Phillips, which has shown impressive sales over the past months, partly attributable to its status as emerging artists experts and the latter’s strength, is still lagging in Hong Kong, but that is because their sales there are still outstanding and next week’s auctions could see the addition of at least $50 million to its Hong Kong branch, which could put it above New York. Brexit fears over the transfer of the European center of art commerce to Paris prove unfounded, simply because the relevance of Europe looks like it’s diminishing more and more in comparison to Asia. A young and hungry globalizing Chinese collectors base is looking for worthwhile investments into art that also speaks to them and that they can display, and auction houses are monetizing on it. Here, too, the question of endurance is especially intriguing, and one that can only be answered over time.
The converging factors of wealth allocation and returns, prestige, globalization and social justice dominate the current environment. While they are not altogether different from what usually dictates market trends, it is the intensity and rapidity with which they come together now under the umbrella of a good narrative that creates lucrative opportunities, but which could be interpreted as worrisome as well, as the foundations on which they are based might be shakier than the ones of the traditional establishment. But change is almost never defined by secure transitions and a transition is certainly what the art market is experiencing.