Who Was Up and Who Was Down at the Art Auctions in 2023?

A look at how the year's Top 500 artist list stacks up against the past.

Pabo Picasso. Femme à la montre (Woman With a Watch) (1932). Courtesy Sotheby's

It was a year of change and recalibration. Markets for blue-chip artists that seemed invincible contracted in 2023. Meanwhile, some of those who had been undervalued soared to new heights.

I asked my colleagues from Artnet Price Database to pull the data comparing the annual auction revenue of leading 500 artists in 2023 and 2022. The results give a picture of just how mercurial the market can be and reveal deeper (and surprising!) long-term shifts.

 

The Horse Race: Shifts at the Top

Jean-Michael Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983). Image courtesy Christie's.

Jean-Michael Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983). Image courtesy Christie’s.

First of all, there was a reshuffling of the artists at the top.

“I tend to think of these changes as driven by supply,” said David Norman, a veteran Impressionist and modern art expert. “One or two pictures can skew them up or down.”

Pablo Picasso regained his crown atop the artist pyramid, with $595.7 million in auction revenue in 2023 compared with $517.7 million in 2022. And it’s no surprise: His 1932 portrait of lover Marie-Therese Walter, Femme à la montre, from the collection of Emily Fisher Landau was the most expensive artwork of the year, at $139.4 million.

The Spaniard dethroned Andy Warhol, the top artist of 2022, who tumbled to the fifth spot in rankings as his auction sales dropped a whopping $391 million to $199.9 million. Here too, a large chunk of the shift comes down to just one painting: Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) from the estate of Doris and Thomas Ammann fetched $195 million in 2022, catapulting the Pop artist to the top of the list. In 2023, the priciest Warhol, Sixteen Jackies (1964), fetched $25.9 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose annual sales dropped 50 percent in 2022, climbed back up from the seventh to the third rank with $240 million in auction revenue. The artist’s top work at auction was El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), which sold for $67.1 million.

Supply depends on a number of factors, including the presence of big estates sold after collectors die. Broader economic and political conditions such as rising interest rates, currency fluctuations, and presidential elections also play a role as discretionary sellers often loathe to consign into volatile conditions and buyers get more conservative about parting with cash. The changing tastes also may help catapult some artists to new highs and send others into nadir.

 

The Bigger Trend: Women Rising

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (ca. 1959). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (ca. 1959). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Overall, male stalwarts including Warhol, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Willem de Kooning, and Alberto Giacometti saw their rankings decline—sometimes precipitously. Yet female artists, historically undervalued compared to their male counterparts, made some strides as private and institutional buyers looked to rewrite chapters in art history. Barbara Hepworth, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Alice Neel all jumped.

Leading the segment, Mitchell ranked as the 12th biggest selling artist with $130 million in auction revenue, up from $67 million in 2022. Her market got a major boost from two back-to-back sales in November. Christie’s sold her Untitled (1959) for $29 million, a new personal auction record. A week later, a late painting, Sunflowers (1990-1991), fetched $27.9 million at Sotheby’s.

Neel, Krasner, and Hepworth jumped up hundreds of ranks in 2023. Hepworth moved from 81st to 54th rank, with $35 million in revenue. Lower down, Neel’s auction revenue reached $9 million, up from $2.4 million in 2022; Krasner hit $9.3 million, up from $3.7 million.

Ultra-contemporary artist Julie Mehretu doubled her annual revenue in 2023, ending the year with $25.6 million and jumping 175 ranks to 77th. She set a new record in October in Hong Kong and smashed it a month later with a $10.7 million result in New York, becoming the most expensive Africa-born artist at auction.

 

Artists Having a “Moment”

Ed Ruscha, Securing the Last Letter (Boss) (1964). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Ed Ruscha, Securing the Last Letter (Boss) (1964). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Major exhibitions at museums, foundations, and galleries also boost artists’ markets—and you see that in the data as well. A plateau in Mitchell’s market, for example, was finally broken after several years by a blockbuster show the Fondation Louis Vuitton in October 2022.

Ditto Picasso, whose “moment” in 2023 coincided with the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death, dubbed “Year of Picasso” and marked with exhibitions around the world. Clearly, it was not a “Pablo-matic” year for him after all!!

In 2023, Ed Ruscha, one of the most acclaimed living U.S. artists, landed 11th, at $115.2 million. In 2022, he ranked 56th with $45.8 million in auction sales.

What changed? A critically acclaimed MoMA show for one. Jason Farago in the New York Times, called Ruscha the “deadpan laureate of American art,” arguing that his current retrospective of more than 200 artworks at the Museum of Modern Art “so finely calibrated, so well-balanced—so cool, in stylistic and emotional and HVAC senses—that you may not initially clock its scale. To call it the show of the season is something of an understatement.”

The top Ruscha work of 2023 was Securing the Last Letter (Boss), a 1964 painting of the four-letter word from the Fisher Landau collection. It fetched $39.4 million, becoming the second highest price for the Los Angeles-based artist, whose auction record of $52.5 million, was reached in 2019.

Cecily Brown, who had an eight-month solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a rare feat), jumped 32 ranks to 41st from 73rd. Her revenue doubled to $46.3 million from $33.1 million. Two paintings sold for $6.71 million—just shy of the auction record of $6.77 million.

 

Artists Not Having a “Moment”

Christie's Hong Kong

Adrien Meyer, Co-Chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art, Christie’s, auctioned off, Lot 81, Jeff Koons, Sacred Heart (Magenta/Gold), for HK$60,875,000/$7,808,704, an Asia auction record for the artist. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The other side of the story is that name-brand artists might not have a big year because price-conscious buyers are waiting for better opportunities while trophy hunters at the top aren’t wooed by the quality of the offerings.

Notable market declines include Monet, whose annual sales fell to $191 million from $539 million during the previous 12 months.

Similarly, Van Gogh’s total of $38.4 million was a fifth of the $193.2 million his work took in 2022. But that was a particularly big year for him, thanks to the Paul Allen collection, which included Verger avec cyprès that sold for $117.2 million, a new auction record after three decades.

Again, the market is so weighted to the top that sometimes it is just a single sale that moves things.

Finally, Jeff Koons, whose $91.2 million stainless steel bunny remains the most expensive artwork by a living artist at auction, ranked 72nd in our top 500 with $27.8 million in sales, down 17 spots from 2022. The priciest work of 2023 was a sculpture, Sacred Heart (Magenta/Gold), which fetched $7.8 million in Hong Kong.


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