The Appraisal: How the Yayoi Kusama Market Rode a Wave of Affordable Editions to a Record Year at Auction in 2021
On the heels of a major museum acquisition, we took a peek at what's been happening in the market for the 92-year-old artist.
Last week, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, announced that they had jointly acquired Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room—My Heart Is Dancing into the Universe (2018). The crowd-pleasing installation will debut in D.C. as part of its Kusama show this spring before heading to Buffalo in 2023.
Joint acquisition arrangements are becoming more common as cash-strapped museums seek to compete with private collectors for sought-after—and increasingly pricey—contemporary artworks. The purchase of the polkadot lantern installation prompted us to check in on Kusama’s auction market, which has been gaining steam in recent years.
Auction record: $8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong in December 2021
Kusama’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 750
Bought in: 51
Average sale price: $244,638
Mean estimate: $150,870
Total sales: $183.5 million
Top painting price: $8 million
Lowest painting price: $38,179
Lowest overall price: $28 (for an unnumbered limited edition 9.5x 14-cm painted cast resin pumpkin)
- Solid bounceback. Kusama’s global auction sales have climbed considerably over the past decade, reaching a career high last year. Her market experienced a slight dip in 2019, when total sales fell almost 8 percent, and again during the pandemic interruption of 2020, when they plummeted nearly 30 percent year over year. But Kusama bounced back better than ever in 2021, with total sales climbing almost 160 percent, to $183.5 million.
- Increasing supply. More than the market for many other artists, Kusama’s is a volume game. The number of lots on offer has been increasing at a steady clip since around 2007, with a record 750 offered in 2021. Three lots have already been sold in 2022 to date.
- Carving open the glass ceiling. Last year, Kusama cracked the list of the 10 best-selling artists at auction, becoming the first woman ever to make the cut. Her top four lots at auction in 2021 were all pumpkins—two sculptures and two paintings.
- Reliable interest. In 2021, PDB users searched for Kusama a grand total of 17,778 times, with interest spread pretty consistently throughout the year.
- Accessible price points. Kusama’s market is driven by a large number of lower-priced works rather than a handful of trophy lots. Although the average price for a Kusama at auction has risen almost 70 percent since 2019, to $244,638, it remains a tiny fraction of the average price for, say, a Jean-Michel Basquiat, at over $5 million. Kusama’s auction record of $8 million also pales in comparison to that of other art stars.
The Bottom Line
Given the explosive popularity of Kusama’s mirrored infinity rooms with the Instagram and TikTok generations, acquiring an installation is certainly not a bad idea for the Hirshhorn and Albright-Knox, especially as they seek to revive attendance post-pandemic. While the artist’s mirrored rooms are by far her most popular and recognizable works, none has ever sold publicly. Instead, her auction presence is fueled by paintings, sculptures, and, most notably, editions, which hit the block by the hundreds each year.
It is striking that Kusama seems to be as prolific as ever at the healthy age of 92, and that an ever-increasing number of lots are hitting the block each year. In this way, her market resembles that of KAWS or Banksy more than peers like Brice Marden or David Hockney. But what Kusama has that KAWS and Banksy lack is a strong track record in museum collections and art-historical scholarship. That, combined with the fact that her supply will inevitably dry up in the not-so-distant future, bodes well for the longevity of her market.
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