Who Were the Best-Selling Artists at Auction in 2021? See the Top 20 Names—and Find Out What They Reveal About the Market
For the first time, a female artist cracked the top 10.
More than $14 billion worth of art sold at auction in 2021. That’s a dollar amount greater than the GDP of Fiji, Barbados, Belize, Saint Lucia, and Eritrea—combined.
Which artists were most sought after in this bonanza of a year, when legendary collections assembled by the likes of Harry and Linda Macklowe and the late Edwin Cox stunned at auction? The usual suspects—Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet—were joined by newbies to the top 10, including Banksy and Yayoi Kusama. See the full list of the top 20 below.
An important note: the data in this article includes all sales from January 1, 2021 through November 30, 2021. December data will complete the picture in a few weeks, but is unlikely to change the order of the leaderboard dramatically.
|Artist||Total Auction Sales (Jan–Nov 2021)||Total Low Estimate||Total High Estimate|
As usual, this year’s results reflect a finely tuned mix of supply and demand. Sometimes, all it takes to transform an artist’s fortunes is for one important collector’s estate to sell a single major work. See: Caillebotte, Gustave, the Impressionist painter who came in at 244 on the list of top-selling artists in 2020 but rocketed to 39th place this year largely because of Christie’s $53 million sale of the late Edwin Cox’s Jeune homme àsa fenêtre (1876) in November. (The Getty Museum was the buyer.)
In other cases, the market is simply willing to absorb considerably more material by an artist at higher prices than it had been in the past. In the first 11 months of 2019, 584 works by Banksy sold for a total of $27.5 million. In the equivalent period of 2021, 934 works generated considerably more: $201.4 million. (For those not interested in doing the long division at home, that means the average price for a Banksy jumped from $47,070 to $215,642—a spike of almost 360 percent in three years.)
Does your head hurt yet?
Diving a bit deeper into some of these high performers, we can see how tastes at the top of the market are shifting, and how the stories we’ve been telling ourselves bear out or are contradicted by the data. Let’s look at a few case studies below.
“Basquiat represents our time,” the dealer Brett Gorvy told us last year. “To have such an amount of major Basquiats completely dominate the marketplace is a signifier of taste.” How right he was. No artist other than Pablo Picasso generated more money at auction than Basquiat in 2021. For the first time, the artist, who was prolific in his short life, outpaced perennial top-performers Warhol and Monet. The spike was driven not by the volume of Basquiats at auction, but by the prices paid for them. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of works by the artist on offer actually fell by 22 percent, but total sales of his work increased by 216 percent. That meant that in 2019, the average price for a Basquiat at auction was $1.3 million. Last year, the figure more than quadrupled, to $5.2 million.
Van Gogh’s success at auction is likely driven by the outlandish success of Immersive Van Gogh and the many imitations the experience has spawned around the globe. Just kidding! I don’t think most people who own a Van Gogh would be caught dead posing inside a 3D reconstruction of the artist’s bedroom. The Impressionist’s outstanding year is instead a classic example of how, in a strong market, supply is the biggest determinant of a blue-chip artist’s success. In 2019, 14 works by Van Gogh were sold at auction—but half were prints, multiples, or drawings that fetched well under $1 million, while only one painting exceeded $10 million. (Van Gogh came in at number 40 on the list that year.) In 2021, thanks in large part to major works sold by the estate of Edwin Cox, no fewer than six works by the Dutch artist passed the $10 million mark, helping to push him to number five on the list of the year’s top sellers.
It’s been a bit of a wild ride for the German painter’s market these past few years. In the early 2010s, intense, even frothy demand pushed prices for Richter’s abstracts to aggressive levels that peaked around 2015, on the heels of his major Tate Modern retrospective. After that, the artist’s market quieted as demand satisfied supply. But while his prices of late have yet to surpass his $46.3 million record set in 2015, the artist’s paintings found more robust demand in 2021 than they had in the several years prior. Between 2019 and 2021, total sales of Richter’s work grew a robust 76 percent—enough to push him from number 10 to number seven on our list in a particularly competitive year.
While our numbers might change slightly once December data comes in, it appears that Yayoi Kusama has accomplished something no other woman has ever done before: crack the list of the top 10 best-selling artists. The prolific creator has long been a frequent presence at auction at every price level, from four-figure multiples to seven-figure paintings and sculptures. (Her top four lots at auction in 2021 were all pumpkins—two sculptures, two paintings.) Although the average price for a Kusama at auction has risen 44 percent since 2019, to $216,187, it remains a tiny fraction of the average price for, say, a Basquiat, at $5.2 million. The difference reveals why Kusama’s auction market resembles, more than anyone else, Banksy’s: it’s driven more by lower-priced volume than by individual works of astronomical value.
It was a big year for the design market, and at the forefront was Francois-Xavier Lalanne, the late French sculptor who loved sheep, alligators, and hippos almost as much as he enjoyed turning their likenesses into chairs and bathtubs. You might be surprised to learn that more than $117 million worth of objects by Lalanne sold at auction in the first 11 months of 2021—more than that generated by Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, or (phew) Beeple. The French artist’s market falls somewhere in the middle of the Bansky-to-Basquiat spectrum. With 233 lots sold, he was a less common presence than Lichtenstein (who loved his prints) or Calder, but sold significantly more works than, for example, Alberto Giacometti. Since 2019, Lalanne’s total sales are up almost 50 percent.
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