The world’s most  »profitable » artists

[15 Dec 2014]


With the art market at an all-time peak, takes a look at artists who generate the highest annual auction totals in the world and who thus represent a handsome source of income for auction operators. The latter, remember, are remunerated from fees charged to both the seller and the buyer.

According to our global auction data, the top artists’ annual turnover totals started rising as of 2006. Eight years ago these totals crossed the $300 million threshold for the first time with the market’s number 1 safe investment, Pablo PICASSO, generating $339m in auction turnover that year. In the following years, that threshold was crossed 13 times, including twice by Picasso himself (2010 and 2013). Although Picasso’s annual best is an impressive $363m, it is beaten hands down by the American Andy WARHOL ($430m in 2007 and then $368m in 2010) and by the Chinese artists ZHANG Daqian and QI Baishi. In 2011, an exceptionally good year for the Chinese art market (before it posted a sharp contraction in 2012), these two artists both posted annual auction turnovers above $500m (more than $561m excl. fees for the former and more than $515m for the latter).
To appreciate the enormity of these figures and the sales power of the Chinese art market in general, it helps to recall that France, the world’s fourth marketplace for art, posted an annual turnover of $549m in 2013 … In fact, the 2011 performances of the two great Chinese Modern artists, Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi, represented between 4 and 5% of the total global auction market that year. However in 2014, the market power of these artists has lagged a long way behind their 2011 peaks. On a global scale, it is difficult to compete against the dominance of American prestige sales, and particularly of the US market’s leading light, Andy Warhol, whose prices remain at their highest. Warhol dominated the recent November sales with his iconic twentieth century portraits: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, who have all, in a certain manner, become the Mona Lisa’s of our time. On 12 November 2014, Christie’s sold Warhol’s Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] for $73 million (more than $81.9m including fees) and his Four Marlons for $62 million ($69.6m including fees).
Once again, the recent New York sales generated a result above the $100 million threshold (including fees): Alberto GIACOMETTI’s sculpture, The Chariot, just missed the artist’s all-time auction record when it fetched $90 million, or $100.9 million including buyer’s fees. The work, guaranteed by Sotheby’s at $100m, attracted just one bid.

The ultra high-end of the art market with works fetching more than 100 million dollars (including fees) is a relatively recent phenomenon. It appeared just 10 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Pablo Picasso was the first on the list with a major canvas from his Rose period entitled Garçon à la pipe which fetched $93m ($104.1m incl. fees) in May 2004 at Sotheby’s in New York. The painting, one of 34 works put up for sale by the Whitney Collection, set a new world price record for a work of art on the secondary market. Nowadays that kind of price is becoming increasingly common on the art market.