Halfway through 2021, the art market shows no sign of slowing down. As most Western cities are emerging from the health crisis, traditional collectors have found their way back to auction rooms. Last June, blue chip artworks reached multimillion-dollar prices at auction while numerous outstanding performances were recorded for emerging artists. As a consequence, the three main auction houses brought in important results, with Phillips being the most talked about. Indeed, the latter recorded its third highest revenue during its New York evening sale, now sufficient to compete with its prestigious rivals. As for Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both houses organized numerous sessions this June in Hong Kong and London with successful results for blue-chip and young artists alike.
1) Phillips : The rise of the outsider
Last June, Phillips renewed with its pre-crisis level and even surpassed it during its evening session. The sale, which was focused on both 20th century and contemporary art, generated a whopping $118 million—almost three times higher than last year and above 2019’s $100 million evening session.
A few major paintings in the $10 million range, including a $11 million David Hockney and a remarkable $9.8 million landscape by Wayne Thiebaud were among the top lots of the sale. But established artists were not the only ones who sold lots above $1 million. Indeed, a $4.14 million piece by young 3D painter Avery Singer helped her surpass her already impressive record of $3.12 million—made no earlier than last month in Hong Kong. Matthew Wong, Dana Schutz, Amy Sherald and Titus Kaphar completed the list of highly successful young talents. Kaphar even recorded his best auction result yet with a $1.05 million painting thus doubling his previous record.
At Phillips’s evening sale, the emerging scene was overrepresented in the mid-price range. For instance, Julie Curtiss broke her auction record with a $466,000 canvas. As for the Pakistani-born painter, Salman Toor, he made a good performance with a $478,000 mid-size painting from 2018.
Phillips’s morning and afternoon New York sessions—which took place on the same day—were more disappointing, with only a handful of interesting lots. The most remarkable attraction was a painting by young British artist Flora Yukhnovich which was acquired for a whopping $1.2 million, almost 20 times higher than its low estimate. The young Victoria Miro recruit only had two previous auction results beforehand.
Earlier this June, Phillips organized two interesting sales in Hong Kong in association with Poly auction. A few days after Christie’s record-breaking sales in the Asian hub, Phillips brought in its best result there too. Indeed, the evening session generated a staggering $63 million and several new auction records for numerous young artists. Among them was Emily Mae Smith who sold a $1.6 million mid-sized canvas, soon followed by a $890,000 large-scale early painting by Salman Toor. As for Loie Hollowell, a new record was set for a $1.4 million painting, which was overturned a week later at Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening sale.
More established artists also performed well at Phillips's Hong Kong evening sale. For instance, Yoshitomo Nara recorded his second best auction result with a $16 million dollar painting, while Yayoi Kusama sold a large Infinity Net painting from the early 2000s for a satisfying $3.3 million.
As for Phillips’s Hong Kong day sale, it was filled with good surprises with regards to the emerging scene. For instance, New York based painter Sanya Kantarovsky almost doubled his previous auction record with a $276,000 painting. New records were also set for young newcomers such as Allison Zuckerman, Madelynn Grant and Angel Otero.
Sotheby’s most talked-about sale in June was curated by Taiwanese music star and collector Jay Chou. It was split into an evening and a day sale—the latter was far less interesting—which both took place in Hong Kong.
The evening session brought in an impressive $109 million. Despite a few remarkable performances for major Asian painters like Yayoi Kusama, Zao Wou-ki and Yoshitomo Nara blue-chip Western artists were even more successful. For instance, a painting from Richard Prince’s nurse series sold for a record-breaking $12.1 million. It was soon followed by a colorful double square painting by Frank Stella acquired for $5.4 million—one of his best results at auction for this type of artwork.
Young painters accounted for a quarter of the 46 lots presented that evening, and yet some of them were among the most talked-about. The first one is undoubtedly Loie Hollowell, who broke her auction record twice that month. Indeed, her painting ''Linked Lingam'' was acquired for a record price of $2.1 million, only a few days after Phillips’s evening sale in Hong Kong during which one of her artworks fetched $1.4 million. Jill Mulleady is another female artist who was honored during the sale. The Uruguayan painter made her auction debut with a $178,000 painting. Last but not least, Rashid Johnson made his third best sale with a $957,000 Anxious Men painting—his third auction record and best result yet for a painting of this series.
Last June, Sotheby’s also organized a modern and contemporary evening sale in London, which generated a respectable $149 million—although 7% below its global low estimate. This new format, which combines master painters from the Impressionist era with emerging contemporary artists, has become more and more popular recently. And yet, it is still quite surprising to see a canvas by Jadé Fadojutimi right next to a Matisse artwork, or a painting by Julie Curtiss followed by a pastel from Edgar Degas. As a matter of fact, the two newcomers sold works for $556,000 and $348,000 respectively, an admirable performance. They were not the only ones since Salman Toor tripled his low estimate that night with a $435,000 mid-sized early painting.
After a record-breaking month of May in Hong Kong and New York, Christie’s only organized a few auction sessions in Paris and London last June. The most interesting one was the 20th/21th Century London evening sale at the end of the month: $164 million worth of art was sold.
The second lot of the sale was a $466,000 recent painting by Salman Toor, who was definitely noticed everywhere in 2021. But some of the most successful lots were artworks by blue-chip artists. For instance, Yayoi Kusama broke her auction record for a sculpture with a golden mid-sized pumpkin acquired for a whopping $3.6 million. As for Bridget Riley, one of her colorful stripe paintings fetched $4.5 million, one of her best performances at auction yet and 50% above her low estimate.
Lucio Fontana was also among the highest rises above low estimates. Indeed, a mid-sized canvas from his Concetto Spaziale series sold for $4 million, almost twice as high than its low estimate. George Condo recorded a similar performance with a cubist portrait acquired for $3.5 million. Last but not least, Stanley Whitney sold a painting for $724,000—almost three times its low estimate—thus breaking his auction record.
According to a recent article published by Artnet News, the first six months of 2021 were the second highest-grossing semester for Christie’s in six years. The auction house generated a global revenue of $3.5 billion during this period, which is even substantially higher than 2019. It was not the only one since Sotbehy’s and Phillips both had an excellent half-year in 2021. These figures show that the art market remained resilient despite the pandemic.
Furthermore, it is important to note that a major part of this growth was absorbed by Asia, which accounted for 40% of Christie’s total revenue. This phenomenon was very clear in June given the success of Phillips’s and Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales. Both houses sold major multimillion-dollar artworks which used to be reserved for New York biggest evening sales in the past.
Another interesting fact is the rise of the private sales departments within auction houses. Indeed, according to the same Artnet article, Christie’s sold $850 million worth of art in private this semester, more than 40% higher than 2020 which was already a record year for this kind of sales—the pandemic boosted private transactions to compensate for the lack of auctions. While auctions were growing, the private sector has also been booming during the semester of 2021, a very encouraging sign for the next half-year.