As a direct return on investment, it’s hard to beat “Untitled,” a 1982 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the African-American street artist who became a global cultural icon, featuring a horned African mask against a backdrop abstract on a canvas almost 5m wide.
In 2004, the painting sold for $4.5 million. Returning to the market 12 years later, it fetched $57.3 million, a record for a Basquiat. This week it went under the hammer in New York for $85m (£68m) including costs to an Asian buyer.
The Basquiat sale comes amid extraordinary sums paid for works of art. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn by Andy Warhol – Basquiat’s rival and friend – sold for a staggering $195 million earlier this month, and three paintings by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne fetched a total by nearly $166 million on Tuesday.
The second sale this week of works from the Macklowe collection – a court-ordered auction as part of an acrimonious divorce settlement between octogenarians Harry and Linda Macklowe – took in $246 million. Total sales of the couple’s remarkable collection, which included works by Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, amounted to more than $922 million.
Another stellar collection of 12 works, including Parliament, Sunset by Monet, which belonged to the late Anne Bass, fetched $363 million last week.
Sales of Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art at major New York auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips – brought in more than $2 billion this month, the art market research company ArtTactic. Sales at Sotheby’s in New York topped $1 billion this week alone, with strong activity from Asia and online.
At a time of geopolitical uncertainty, runaway inflation and falling stock prices, the art market is booming. The explosion is fueled by a combination of an unusual number of highly desirable works becoming available and an increase in the number of those who can afford to buy them.
“The rich have gotten much richer,” said art market scholar and author Georgina Adam, pointing to Forbes’ tally of more than 700 new billionaires across the world over the past two years. “And if you’re mega-rich, there’s not so many things you can acquire that are real trophies, that nobody else can have. Art is a real trophy.
Anders Petterson, founder of ArtTactic, said there was also an element of investment in acquisitions by ultra-high net worth individuals. “After the financial crisis [in 2008], we’ve seen people want to put their money into tangible assets. We see an element of it again now.
Art was “considered a safe place to put your money,” Adam said. “At the high end of the market, the returns can be colossal. What other investment can offer this kind of return? »
The demographic profile of buyers is changing. Nearly a quarter of the total auction value for works in the Macklowe collection came from Asia. Monet’s Les Arceaux des Roses was sold this week by Sotheby’s to an Asian buyer for $23.3 million. The auction house also saw record participation from young and new collectors.
“It’s really pronounced – and they’re not just buying cutting-edge contemporary works, but also established works,” said Brooke Lampley, president and global head of global fine art sales at Sotheby’s.
The other half of the equation was supply, she said. “During the pandemic, there was a shortage of works for sale due to uncertainty over the resilience of the market. Many people chose to wait.
“This season we are seeing the first real return to pre-pandemic supply levels, and a variety of shippers are choosing to sell great works of art. And that has attracted strong and healthy demand.
The market is also becoming more accessible, thanks to online auctions. This week, for the first time, Sotheby’s livestreamed its modern art sale on Instagram, attracting nearly 20,000 viewers. Auction houses, which were forced to go online when the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, have embraced digital platforms such as TikTok, Facebook Live and YouTube.
“It opened up channels to a whole new demographic,” Petterson said. The only way to attend an art auction in the past was to brave an exclusive, highly privileged and often intimidating group. “Now you can sit in front of your screen at home to watch this theatrical performance. It certainly generates interest.
Whether the current wave of blockbuster sales continues remains to be seen. “So much is driven by exceptional works of art coming to market,” Lampley said. “If it continues next season, I expect the market to come out for it. But if this season’s exceptionally abundant supply wanes, we might see a different reaction.
Other factors could come into play, Petterson said. “Confidence in the market is really high, but we have to be careful not to think it’s immune to what’s happening elsewhere in the world.
“We are entering a period where people are suffering in terms of food on the table, electricity and gas prices. There may come a time when it becomes difficult to justify paying these prices.