Highlights from the Artprice Contemporary Art Market Report

by Corinna Kirsch on October 10, 2012 Opinion

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled (1981)" was this year's most expensive artwork sold at auction. Courtesy Christie's.

What happens to the wealthy is what happens to the rest of the art world. At least, that’s what Artprice’s annual contemporary art market report suggests. Every October, Artprice publishes The Artprice Annual Report, a whopping 140-page document about trends in the contemporary art market; they look at art auction records,then talk to dealers and anybody else managing multi-million-dollar art sales to come up with a sense of the health of the market as a whole. We disagree, knowing that what happens at the auction houses doesn’t trickle down to the rest of the art world; for all its flaws, though, we enjoy reading this thing.

For an economic report, it’s surprisingly full of romantic turns of phrase like “the new El Dorado of Contemporary art” and “art is not innocent”—the type of sentiments that appeal to budding collectors’ aesthetic sensibilities. It’s not all aesthetics: the report preaches about sales, and claims that a Basquiat selling for millions of dollars can be a “bargain.”

The meatiest details comes from Artprice’s “Top 500”, which ranks the artists who have brought in the most money at auction over the past year. Basquiat topped that list, but Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, and other contemporary mainstays such as Jeff Koons made the top ten.

Because the report is so long, we’ve broken down the document’s main points about the market forecast and trends. There’s rising stars, a secluded China, and a little bit of photography to make you sound a little smarter about what’s happening with the one percent.

1. American artists are more profitable than European ones, even in Europe.

At the European auctions, the popularity of American artists far outweighs that of their European counterparts. Of the 10 highest selling lots at auction this past year, Artprice relays, only two were made by European artists, Glenn Brown and Antony Gormley. Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Christopher Wool were three of the rest. Go U.S.A.!

More from Artprice:
European markets have become very wide indeed: Jean-Michel Basquiat – currently America’s most profitable artist – posted an annual auction revenue more or less equivalent to the annual auction turnover of Europe’s top 10 Contemporary artists combined… including Damien Hirst! (pages 17 – 18)

2. Art can be flipped within a year of purchase.

What once would have seemed unfathomable is now true: art can now be “flipped” within a year of purchase for millions in profit. Well, not really, Artprice. That’s just Jeff Koons who enjoys that status; his Woman in a Tub resold at auction for more than a million pounds within a year. Don’t believe the hype.

More from Artprice:
Contemporary artwork that could generate a capital gain of € 1.2m in 12 months seemed to be the stuff of dreams, and the world’s wealthiest investors and collectors were quick to enter the new El Dorado of Contemporary art. (page 23)

3. Artists are setting personal records all the time.

Yes, 2011 and 2012 saw Basquiat achieve higher prices at auction than ever before, but now we can add Jeff Wall, Cady Noland, and Wim Delvoye to that crew. Does this mean that there’s more demand for contemporary art? Maybe, but it could just indicate a shift in buying preferences. What people were once investing in Old Masters and Modernists is now being pumped into the contemporary market.

More from Artprice:
In the late 1990s, a stuffed tattooed pig [by Wim Delvoye] sold for less than €10,000 at Christie’s (£6,500, 22 April 1998 in London). Today one would expect to pay between €40,000 and  €100,000, depending on the quality of the design, for one of his tattooed pigs. (page 37)

4. China is on the rise, but it’s still a local market.

Five of the top ten highest selling works over the past year were by Chinese artists, but most American and European collectors have never heard of these artists. That sounds kind of strange, but really, it just means that the Chinese market is growing locally, with its own collector base and auction houses. Artprice concludes that work by Chinese artists doesn’t fit “Western ideals and taste.” That might be a nice way of saying American and European collectors just don’t like it.

More from Artprice:
The vast majority of the highest-priced Chinese artists are unknown by Western collectors because their work does not correspond to the requirements of Western ideals and taste. The dominance of Chinese artists is therefore economic in nature and very local. (page 24)

5. Painting continues to dominate the auction market, but little by little, photography and sculpture continues to sell in the million dollar range.

It’s not that sculpture and photography don’t sell at high prices, it’s just that the super-rich can end up spending the entire GDP of a small country on paintings. So, what’d they spend their money on this year when they weren’t buying paintings? Cady Noland’s sculpture Oozewald fetched more than $5 million at Sotheby’s earlier this year, a personal record for the artist; Robert Gober and Paul McCarthy also sold sculpture in the millions. As for photography, Jeff Wall joined the ranks of photographers selling seven-figure works. Those other photographers: Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Cindy Sherman. That’s one small club.

More about the super-rich from Artprice:
2011/2012 stands out as the third best performance in the history of the Contemporary art market, behind the peak of the bubble 2007/2008 (€976 .9m). (page 11)

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