Market structure

This year again tens of thousands of Contemporary artworks sold through auctions worldwide. The last two decades have seen a considerable expansion in the global Contemporary art market with 55,000 works sold last year, i.e. 4.7 times more than the total for the year 2000. This expansion of the market has allowed a 1,370% increase in the volume of auction turnover over the same period.

The demand for Contemporary art has essentially grown in response to major structural reforms of the art market triggered by globalisation and online buying, and the intensification of demand as more people become interested in acquiring artworks has pushed Contemporary art prices to new highs.

A number of different factors have contributed to this phenomenon including much easier access to reliable art market information and the organisation of online auctions and sales (with 95% of the bidders using mobile internet devices), but also the financialisation of the market, the increase in the number of art buyers (from 500,000 after World War II to around 70 million in 2015), the lower average age of buyers and the extension of the market to large parts of Asia, the Pacific Rim, India, South Africa, the Middle-East and South America. Indeed, Christie’s claims to have observed a 96% increase in the number of its Internet clients (source: Les Echos 25/07/2016).

Lastly, the museum industry (700 new museums per year) has become one of the primary drivers of the art market’s spectacular growth with more museums built between 2000 and 2014 than during the previous two centuries. Naturally, the museum industry needs museum-quality works and it is an industry that has become a significant economic reality in the 21st century, particularly for the Art Market.

The art market has always been a safe-haven in times of major economic turbulence and particularly when classical financial assets lose their value. This is exactly the situation the global economy has been facing recently, and more than ever in 2016/2017.

The high-end market

The global auction record for a work of Contemporary art has multiplied by 10 in just ten years… However, during this period the most spectacular results keep on rewarding the same artists: Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The only other artist to have stolen the limelight during this period was the Scottish artist, Peter Doig (in 2009).

Best annual result for a Contemporary Work

Best annual result for a Contemporary Work - 2006 – H1 2016

2006 – H1 2016

Nowadays, million-dollar bids have become commonplace at major prestige sales. And yet they are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first million-plus result in the field of Contemporary art occurred in 1998 when a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $3.3 million. Since then the rhythm of million-plus results has been accelerating with 25 in 2004, then 62 in 2006 reaching 307 in 2014, the best year in the history of the Contemporary art market.

This past year, the high-end market posted a remarkable change of tack. The number of 10 million-plus results decreased in what might be considered a prudent downward correction; but the number of 7-digit results remained stable. After the slowdown in the second semester of 2015, the Contemporary art market showed signs of a recovery with 115 results above the million-dollar threshold in the first half of 2016 alone.

Number of Contemporary Works above the million-dollar line

Number of Contemporary Works above the million-dollar line - 1998 – H1 2016

1998 – H1 2016

However, it would be quite inappropriate to reduce the Contemporary art market to that of its ostentatious and record-breaking high end. In reality, it is a mature market where Contemporary artworks are avidly collected by all types of buyers, at all price levels.

In fact, the heart of the market consists of works that can be acquired for under $5,000, which represent 69% of the total lots sold. This price range is not reserved for prints, etchings and photographs which are generally considered more affordable. Some 17,000 Contemporary paintings changed hands last year for prices under $5,000, although the painting medium is still the most prestigious and the most financially rewarding medium to invest in.

Contemporary Art Sales Distribution by price range (in $)

Contemporary Art Sales Distribution by price range (in $) July 2015 – June 2016

July 2015 – June 2016

Painting is still the top medium

The power of the Contemporary art market is still expressed, in the majority of cases, through the exchange of artworks on canvas. These works generated over $1 billion last year, equivalent to two-thirds of the Contemporary art market’s total global turnover, a dominance that is perfectly logical since painting is still the preferred medium among collectors and the most expensive. At the high end we are talking about paintings that fetch millions of dollars by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Christopher Wool, Peter Doig, Richard Prince and, more recently, Jenny Saville. Last year painting was once again the dominant medium on the market with 173 results above the $1 million line versus 151 the previous year. Meanwhile, all the other media combined generated only 38 results above this threshold.

Nevertheless, the $1 billion generated by painting did not come exclusively from the market’s high end. In total that $1 billion came from 28,000 paintings, of which 60% were hammered under $5,000. In this price range, buyers are inspired more by a spirit of discovery than by speculative motives. In all of its diversity, Contemporary painting is still able to seduce buyers, and the medium posted a 15% increase in its auction transactions last year.

Contemporary Art Auction Revenue Distribution by Medium

Contemporary Art Auction Revenue Distribution by Medium - July 2015 – June 2016

July 2015 – June 2016

Sculpture and drawing generate a quarter of the Contemporary segment’s turnover

After painting, sculpture is the market’s second most preferred medium. The sale of three-dimensional works generated $225 million last year. At the price summit we find Jeff Koons, with two works fetching over $15 million each. But the real surprise was Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001) which sold for over $17 million on 8 May 2016 at Christie’s in New York, setting a new record for the 55 year-old Italian artist. Another of his works was also among the 23 million-plus sculptures last year. These are indeed exceptions since 90% of Contemporary sculptures sell for less than $50,000.

Similarly to painting and sculpture, 60% of drawings change hands below the $5,000 line and, as drawings are generally cheaper than works on canvas, this market segment opens up to well-known signatures at a much lower threshold. For example, signed drawings by Tracey Emin or Wim Delvoye are readily available for less than $10,000 and sometimes for half that price.

However, when the auction prices for an artist’s painted or sculpted works start to inflate rapidly, his/her drawings naturally follow suit. It is not uncommon for a work on paper by an in-vogue Contemporary artist to sell above $100,000. In this price range, the drawing market is just as dense as the sculpture medium, with 284 lots fetching six- or seven-digit results this year, versus 280 sculptures.

Photography gains ground

With no significant sales of major works by Andreas Gursky or Cindy Sherman, only one photographer joined the Top 100 auction results last year: Richard Prince. Three of his photographs fetched million-plus results at Christie’s New York on 10 May 2016: Untitled (Cowboy) sold for $3.5 million and two untitled works from his Fashion series fetched $2.8 million and $2.4 million respectively.

Fifteen photographs by Cindy Sherman, the world’s most expensive photographer, sold for prices above $100,000 last year, with the auction houses carefully avoiding her most expensive works. The majority of her works changed hands for between $5,000 and $20,000 over the 12-month period.

The slowdown in the production of auction records in the photography segment does not reflect any kind of disinterest in the medium. In fact the medium is gaining ground with a +10% increase in the number of prints sold versus the previous year.

Photography is becoming increasingly established on the Contemporary art market and now generates 8% of the market’s transactions.

Prints, a guarantee of success

In order to disseminate their works to a wider audience, Contemporary artists use various reproduction techniques. Indeed, the quest for mass appeal and market visibility often brings substantial benefits for an artist. Hence the Contemporary artists who sell a lot of prints at auction are very often artists whose works in other media fetch particularly high prices.

Among the Contemporary artists who sold the most prints last year there are three champions: Takashi Murakami, Keith Haring and Damien Hirst whose major works on canvas or 3-D (sculptures) are worth millions. At the top of this ranking, Takashi Murakami is the most productive printer, and his prints represented 86% of his lots sold last year.

Interestingly, this source of income never seems to exhaust its market and Murakami remains an international star at all price levels. Affordable for a few hundred dollars, he also ranked 19th in the Top 100 artists by annual auction turnover last year.

Top 10 Contemporary artists by lots sold

Artist Auction Revenue Sold Lots Best result
1 Takashi MURAKAMI (1962) $12,791,202 355 $2,014,432
2 Keith HARING (1958-1990) $24,259,022 352 $5,565,747
3 Damien HIRST (1965) $15,800,811 340 $1,739,659
4 Shepard FAIREY (1970) $614,772 234 $62,193
5 Yoshitomo NARA (1959) $31,713,367 219 $3,413,000
6 Günther FÖRG (1952-2013) $10,948,343 193 $815,000
7 BANKSY (1974) $4,280,687 178 $290,845
8 Jörg IMMENDORFF (1945-2007) $2,267,076 174 $286,000
9 KAWS (1974) $4,760,596 162 $430,000
10 Robert COMBAS (1957) $1,876,873 152 $90,351
July 2015 – June 2016 / ©