The 3 most expensive Contemporary artists of the year so far

[27 Jul 2021]

The fact that Jean-Michel Basquiat is still the most expensive Contemporary artists at auction is not surprising. The African-American star, who died in 1988, is to Contemporary art what Picasso is to Modern art. On the other hand, the logic behind the other two artists in the year’s top 3 auction Contemporary results is more puzzling. One is the digital artist Beeple, creator of the first NFT ever sold at Christie’s (prompting all the major auction houses to offer digital art), and the other is Sino-American artist Chen Danqing, whose latest auction record at over 25.1 million dollars (in June) is six times his previous record and the best result ever hammered for a Contemporary Chinese artwork.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Jean-Michel BASQUIAT is clearly the most successful Contemporary artist on the global secondary market. Having generated $261 million in auctions around the world in the first semester of 2021, it may turn out to be his best-ever year. For the time being, he is the world’s second best performing artist at auction, all creative periods combined, just behind Pablo Picasso (with $296 million so far).

Basquiat is responsible for five of the six best Contemporary results of the year, with works selling between 30 and 93.1 million dollars. The two most expensive (In This Case (1983) and Versus Medici (1982)) changed hands in New York, but the other three were sold by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. The distribution of Basquiat’s market has therefore radically changed this year. Previously, London and New York had control over all major Basquiat works, accounting for more than 90% of the artist’s annual auction turnover. But in 2021, Hong Kong has hammered no less than 36% of the artist’s turnover versus 56% for New York.

The diversification of the major private Asian collections and the success of online prestige sales (with longer bidding periods) are two factors that have contributed to the penetration of the Hong Kong market by this essential and strategic signature.

Beeple (b. 1981)

Completely unknown to the traditional art auction market last year, BEEPLE is today one of the three most expensive living artists in the world – all media combined – after David Hockney and Jeff Koons.

With a result that was not only colossal but was also online and for a non-fungible token and paid in Ethers, Beeple attracted the second best Contemporary art auction bid of the year so far. The first NFT ever offered in a public auction, Beeple’s Everydays: The first 5000 Days (2021) fetched an eye-watering $69.3 million. The .jpg file was acquired on March 11 by Vignesh Sundaresan, an Indian entrepreneur specialized in blockchain technology and who made his fortune in the cryptocurrencies market. By allowing Sundaresan to pay 42,329 Ether (the currency of the Ethereum network), Christie’s took its first decisive step into the cryptocurrency sphere. It was the first time a traditional auction house has accepted to participate in a such a virtual exchange and it triggered an immediate reaction from the other auction houses who offered crypto-settlement and quickly positioned themselves to take advantage of the flourishing NFT market… the new eldorado of the art market between March and June (and possibly beyond)

Chen Danqing (b.1953)

Unexpected… the third artist on this year’s provisional podium for Contemporary artworks is CHEN Danqing (originally from Shanghai but living in the United States since the 1980s) who added a staggering $21.7 million to his previous auction record at the beginning of June.

Poly International Beijing offered his Shepherds (oil-on-cardboard) measuring less than 80 cm tall and depicting a Tibetan couple about to kiss against the backdrop of the vast Lhasa prairies. The work fetched nearly $25.2 million versus a previous record of $3.5 million ten years ago at the same auctioneer. Chen Danqing is highly appreciated in China, but relatively unknown in the West despite having been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and New York’s Guggenheim.



A ‘stolen kiss’ from Chen Danqing’s Tibetan series becomes the most expensive Contemporary Chinese artwork at over $25.1 million.

Shepherds is from a series of seven paintings that focus on the daily lives of Tibetans. The work was completed in 1980, just four years after the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution during which the artist painted more than a hundred portraits to the glory of Mao Zedong. Contrary to the propaganda art produced by and for the Cultural Revolution, the authenticity of Danqing’s Tibetan series was immensely popular in China. At the time of Poly International’s sale, his Tibetan series was in the spotlight as part of a major Chen Danqing exhibition at the Chinese Academy of Painting.

Danqing is now, for the first time, among the world’s Top 20 Contemporary artists by price and he is even ahead of Damien Hirst in terms of annual auction turnover!

New podium of Contemporary Chinese art:

1 – CHEN Danqing (1953), Tibetan series: Shepherds (1980): $25.17 million, Poly International Beijing, 2021

2 – ZENG Fanzhi (1964), The Last Supper (2001): $23.27 million, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2013

3 – CHEN Yifei (1946-2005), Warm spring in the jade pavilion (1993): $22.6 million, China Guardian Beijing, 2017