Which Artists Earned the Most at Auction in 2015?

It's official: Pablo Picasso is still the king of modern art.

Pablo Picasso Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) , 1955. Courtesy of Christie's New York.


Between 2014 and 2015, the overall global auction market declined by six percent, on a value basis. However, the US market moved ahead, posting an overall increase to reach sales of $3.4 billion, compared with $2.9 billion in the previous year, as markets in the UK and China eroded.

In order to determine top artists during this time period, we looked at individual sale categories to see which ones are bringing in the most money at auction using artnet’s annual auction data. While the list of the top works includes what one might consider the usual suspects, the numbers are nonetheless interesting for what they indicate about average prices for top artists and the number of works sold.



For instance, Pablo Picasso topped the list of modern artists with total 2015 auction sales of $652.9 million, and artnet data shows that this is for more than 2,800 works sold.

But the next highest-selling artists, Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani, who happen to be neck-and-neck as far as sales totals, with $251.6 million and $251.1 million respectively, had far lower volume.

For Giacometti, there were  117 works that came to auction, while for Modigliani there were just 33 works at auction. Both artists had a huge year, with Giacometti’s L’homme au dought (1947), selling for $141.3 million at Christie’s this past May, while Modigliani’s Nu couchee (1917-18) brought $170.4 million at Christie’s, also this past May. Picasso, however, was the highest-selling artist, with L’femme d’ Alger (Version O) (1955), garnering $179.4 million.

aa-data-pwcOther top-selling artists in the list include Joan Miró ($146 million for more than 1,000 works sold), and Marc Chagall ($100 million for 986 works).

For the Impressionist and post-Impressionist category, the leader was Claude Monet with an auction total of $338.6 million, again for a relatively slim number of works on offer, with artnet listing just 33 lots sold at auction for 2015. The second-highest selling artist was Vincent van Gogh, with $143.5 million in sales, for just 13 works sold. The Dutch painter accounted for the two highest-selling works in this category. L’Allée des Alyscamps (1889), which sold for $66.3 million this past May, and Paysage sous un ciel mouvemente (1889), sold for $54 million this past November, both at Sotheby’s in New York.

Paintings by Monet accounted for eight of the 20 highest selling Impressionist works, led by Nymphéas (1905), sold by Sotheby’s for $54 million in May.

In the post-war and contemporary sector, unsurprisingly Andy Warhol ranked at the top, with auction volume of $525.6 million, for a more than 1,400 works sold. Francis Bacon held the second slot, with less than half by volume, a total of $232.5 million for 103 works sold, and Cy Twombly was third highest with $223.8 million for 72 works sold. Just nine works by Mark Rothko were sold, for a total of $219 million. And Lucio Fontana, whose slashed, minimalist artworks have been soaring along with the broader market for Italian conceptual art, took in $215.5 million in auction sales for 234 works.

Lichtenstein, who ranked sixth for overall volume, had sales of $213.8 million for 489 works sold. Roughly half of that though was accounted for by a single major painting, Nurse (1964), which sold for $95 million this past November. It was just another indication of how heated the top of the market for blue-chip works has become: when it last sold at auction in 1995, the same painting made a mere $1.4 million.

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