The Back Room: A Year That Went Boom

This week: art-market acceleration hits a new gear, Sotheby's outsells itself, European gavels get loud too, and much more.

Detail of Avery Singer, FELLOW TRAVELERS, FLAMING CREATURES (2013). Courtesy Sotheby’s. Illustration by Artnet News.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.


This week in the Back Room: art-market acceleration hits a new gear, Sotheby’s outsells itself, European gavels get loud too, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,942 words).



Programming Note: The Back Room will be on hiatus Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, returning the first Friday of 2022.


Top of the Market

Swept Up in a Frenzy

Emily Mae Smith, Broom Life.(2014) Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

Emily Mae Smith, Broom Life.(2014) Image courtesy Phillips and Poly Auction.

For nearly two years, many analysts have been declaring that COVID dramatically accelerated changes in business and culture that were already underway. While I think the full story is more complex, the markets of several in-demand contemporary artists have furiously sped up this year—to a velocity that appears unprecedented even in the speculation-driven 21st century.


In the first half of the 2010s, favored artists in the Zombie Formalist movement generally shot out of the gate with jetpacks, quickly reaching prices near the half-million-dollar mark, before either crashing back to earth (see: Smith, Lucien) or else managing to roughly maintain their initial altitude up to the present day (see: Murillo, Oscar).

What we’ve seen happen with some of the most in-demand talent in 2021 is much more extreme, I argued this Wednesday. In multiple instances, artists in their mid-30s to early 40s high-jumped from well-established auction prices at or above the richest results of the Zombie Formalists to lofty new territory multiple times higher seemingly overnight.

Consider capsule studies of the following three artists (who aren’t even a part of the most speculated-upon group of the past few years: figurative artists of color depicting subjects of color)…

Loie Hollowell

  • First Notable NYC Solo Show: October 2016 at Feuer Mesler, where works sold for between $8,000 and $15,000 each.
  • High-end Pivot: Signed with Pace Gallery in December 2016. Her first solo at Pace’s NYC flagship opened in September 2019, with large canvases selling out at $100,000 each. Pace has consistently resold her paintings privately in the $250,000 to $275,000 range during the years since, according to advisors.
  • Auction Record Entering May 2021Lady in Green (2014) sold for $442,000 at Christie’s London in October 2019. (Reminder: Final prices include fees; presale estimates don’t.)
  • Number of Records Set Since May 2021: Three, including two north of $1 million. (Three other lots have sold for seven figures this year without topping Hollowell’s then-record.)
  • Current Auction High: Her 2018 painting Linked Lingams (yellow, green, blue, purple, pink) brought $2.1 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this June.


Avery Singer

  • First Notable NYC Solo Show: March 2018 at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.
  • High-end Pivot: Signed with Hauser and Wirth in December 2019. Singer paintings offered by the gallery at Frieze Los Angeles 2020 were priced between $420,000 and nearly $500,000. Her most recent solo at Hauser’s NYC space opened this September.
  • Auction Record Entering April 2021FELLOW TRAVELERS, FLAMING CREATURES (2013) went for $735,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2018.
  • Number of Records Set Since April 2021: Four, with three surpassing $1 million. (Another lot sold for more than $4 million in November but failed to break what was then Singer’s high mark.)
  • Current Auction High: The 2017 painting Untitled (Tuesday) soared to $4.5 million at Christie’s Hong Kong on December 1.


Emily Mae Smith

  • First Notable NYC Solo Show: September 2015 at Laurel Gitlen. The gallery sold Smith’s Broom Life (2014) at NADA Miami Beach in 2014 for $6,375.
  • High-end Pivot: Smith’s first show with Perrotin (which reps her in Paris and Asia) opened in 2018. Petzel became her stateside dealer this February, with her inaugural solo there scheduled for 2022.
  • Auction Record Entering June 2021Alien Shores (2018) sold for $359,000 at Phillips London in October 2020.
  • Number of Records Set Since June 2021: One, though two additional lots also sold for more than $1 million without resetting her auction ceiling.
  • Current Auction High: You guessed it, Broom Life shot to $1.6 million at a Phillips and Poly Auction sale in Hong Kong this June, more than 21 times its $76,000 high estimate—and 250 times its primary-market price seven years earlier.

Several factors have enabled these rapid accelerations since the onset of the pandemic. Young money, particularly in East Asia, charged into the art market with new confidence, vigor, and international taste. Many high-net-worth individuals bought new homes with bare walls in places like Aspenthe Hamptons, and Palm Beach. Income normally spent on lavish vacations and nights out was reallocated elsewhere. Art sellers finally embraced online and hybrid selling en masse.


But the explanations are less important to me than the implications about what comes next, especially in light of the cross-fair spending spree we saw at Miami Art Week 2021. With the stampede breaching multiple tiers of the primary market, not just the auction sector, there’s no telling how much faster things could move from here.


The Bottom Line

There have never been this many people in this many places ready and willing to spend this much money this confidently in the art market before. That’s great news for the sell side of the trade, but it is warping the expectations and incentives on the buy side to new extremes.

With the careers of coveted living artists already hurtling further past the speedometer’s red line than any of their predecessors, the question becomes who in the business can keep control of the wheel once this unprecedented straightaway leads into the next hairpin turn.



Paint Drippings

A booth at TEFAF Maastricht in 2019. Photo: Loraine Bodewes, TEFAF Maastricht.

A booth at TEFAF Maastricht in 2019. Photo by Loraine Bodewes, TEFAF Maastricht.

The last Wet Paint of 2021 will be up later today, but here’s what else has made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • TEFAF postponed the 2022 edition of its flagship fair in Maastricht from a planned opening of March 12 to a date yet to be determined. At least 30 exhibitors already pulled out of the expo earlier this month after an email from TEFAF reiterated that the organization will keep up to €7,500 ($8,500) in deposit fees if the fair is cancelled outright again. (Artnet News)
  • The Armory Show has hired three curators specializing in Latin American and Latinx art, Carla Acevedo-YatesTobias Ostrander, and Mari Carmen Ramírez, to bring a “unified focus” to its curatorial sections in 2022. (Press release)


Auction Houses

  • Fresh off posting its best-ever annual sales results, Phillips will expand to a new 48,000 square-foot Asia headquarters in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The house, which racked up $1.2 billion in global auction and private sales in 2021, plans to have the new office “up and running” in 2023. (Artnet News)



  • Kenny Schachter relayed a tip from an “unassailable source” that Beeple pitched Larry Gagosian on representing him because he would generate (in the artist’s rumored verbiage) “a shit load of money” for the mega-gallery. (Artnet News Pro)
  • Chicago gallery Patron has brought on two new directors: Briana Lynn Pickens, previously of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and independent curator and writer Kristin Korolowicz, who has a background working at the Hirshhorn, the Bass, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (Press release)



  • The Berlin Biennale has tapped curators Ana Teixeira PintoĐỗ Tường LinhMarie Helene PereiraNoam Segal, and Rasha Salti to curate its next edition in 2022, which will be overseen by artistic director Kader Attia. (ARTnews)
  • Former Whitney Museum curator Christopher Y. Lew’s next role will be as director of the Horizon Foundation, an entity formed by collectors Jason Li and Harry Hu to support emerging and mid-career artists in Los Angeles. (The Art Newspaper)
  • The Kunstmuseum Bern announced that it will give up more than two dozen works donated by deceased art collector Cornelius Gurlitt due to either proven ties to Nazi looting or murky provenance. Among the pieces are two watercolors by Otto Dix that will be restituted to the heirs of their Jewish former owners. (Artnet News)


NFTs and More

  • Artnet unveiled its guide to who’s who in the crypto game via the Artnet NFT 30 Report, featuring bios on must-know figures from artists XCOPY and Osinachi, to pseudonymous buyers Pranksy and Cozomo de’ Medici. (Artnet NFT)
  • The Morgan Art Foundation, which owns the copyright to some of Robert Indiana‘s most famous works, filed a lawsuit against publisher Michael McKenzie for allegedly forging Indiana’s artwork, defaming the foundation in the press, and interfering with its rights to reproduce Indiana’s famous “LOVE” works. (Artnet News)
  • On Wednesday, the FBI and IRS raided Palm Beach secondary market dealer Danieli Fine Art, located on the city’s ritzy Worth Avenue strip, for reasons yet to be revealed. (Artnet News)


Data Dip

Sotheby’s Record-Setting Run

© Artnet News 2021.

© Artnet News 2021.

Sotheby’s sold $7.3 billion worth of art and collectibles in 2021, a record in the auction house’s 277-year-history. While private sales declined roughly 13 percent year-over-year, to $1.3 billion, live and online auctions contributed an all-time-high $6 billion.

Lots that fetched more than $10 million appeared in a wide range of categories, including Asian art, contemporary, Modern, Latin American, Old Masters, watches, jewels, books and manuscripts, and NFTs (with the last category amassing $100 million in sales).

The robust results arrive amid rumors that the house could be taken public once again, according to Bloomberg News. Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi has reportedly held preliminary private discussions with potential advisors about a U.S. listing as soon as next year. (A Sotheby’s spokesperson declined to comment “on rumors or speculation.”)

[Read More]


“Honoring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public. Given the federal crimes committed by Purdue Pharma and the staggering national death toll, this is a situation of force majeure.”


—Partial text of a letter to Metropolitan Museum of Art leadership from an international group of A-list artists pushing to strip all references to the Sackler family from the museum, which Met officials finally obliged late last week. Along with Sackler PAIN founder Nan Goldin, the 77 signatories included Ai WeiweiJenny HolzerArthur JafaAnish KapoorEd RuschaRichard SerraCindy Sherman, and Kara Walker. (The New Yorker)


Artwork of the Week

Albert Oehlen’s Untitled (Triptych)

Albert Oehlen, Untitled (Triptych) (1988). Courtesy of Ketterer Kunst.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled (Triptych) (1988). Courtesy of Ketterer Kunst.


Date:                    1988
Seller:                  Private Collection

Estimate:             €1.5 million ($1.7 million)
Sale Price:           €3.6 million ($4.2 million)
Sold at:                Ketterer Kunst, Munich


European auction houses are enjoying the plump fruits of the latest art-market surge just like their larger international competitors, my colleague Kate Brown wrote this week. Whether for individual works or year-end totals, newsworthy numbers have been reported by regional players including Germany’s Ketterer Kunst and Grisebach, Vienna’s Dorotheum, and Polswiss Art in WarsawPoland.

Robert Ketterer, owner of Ketterer Kunst, credited “Brexit and low interest rates” as added factors that helped make 2021 the highest-selling year in the company’s history. The house tallied €88 million ($99.3 million) in combined online and offline sales, including 15 lots moved for more than €1 million.

The richest and most recent of those seven-figure sellers was Albert Oehlen’s Untitled (Triptych) from 1988. Ketterer Kunst director Sebastian Neusser said of the painting that “a work of this quality has never been sold on the European auction market before.” He called it a “key” piece in the artist’s oeuvre, marking “the beginning of his turn towards abstraction.”

On December 9 in the house’s Munich salesroom, a private collection from the Benelux Union beat out competitors from Germany and Switzerland to win the triptych for €3.6 million ($4.2 million), more than double its low estimate. The result marked the first time Ketterer Kunst has sold a work for more than €3 million, and it set a new record price for Oehlen in his native country.

It’s also a vital year-end reminder that historic bidding wars aren’t the sole birthright of hot young artists and massive global auction houses.


Additional reporting and writing by Naomi Rea. 


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next year.

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