Which Artists Have Generated the Most Money at Auction So Far This Year?

What if I told you that Mad Dog Jones generated more money at auction in the first four months of 2020 than Rodin or Murakami?

Sandro Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, (c. 1444/5 – 1510) at Sotheby's New York. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Sandro Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, (c. 1444/5 – 1510) at Sotheby's New York. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

An examination of the top-grossing artists at auction from January 2021 through April 2021 offers a stark picture of just how much the cryptocurrency boom (see: Beeple) and Asia’s growing economy and changing tastes (see: Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-ChunJean-Michel Basquiat, and Matthew Wong) have shaped the market so far this year.

Meanwhile, the top earner on this list, Sandro Botticelli, is an instructive example of how the market continues to be fueled as much by the three D’s that drive supply (death, divorce, and debt) as any individual trend. Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1444/5–1510), one of only two works by the artist sold at auction so far this year, was consigned by the estate of the late real estate executive Sheldon Solow and sold for a whopping $92 million.

Below is a list of the 25 highest-grossing artists at auction in the first four months of 2020. Below that, we take a look at what’s behind the numbers.

 

Top 25 Artists by Total Sales Value, January–April 2021

Artist Name Lots Sold Lots Offered Total Sales  Total High Estimate 
Sandro Botticelli 2 2 $93,534,000 $80,800,000
Pablo Picasso 775 913 $86,976,535 $84,245,592
Beeple 1 1 $69,346,250 N/A
Banksy 454 574 $67,896,820 $44,614,910
Jean-Michel Basquiat 22 24 $56,839,223 $50,763,595
Zao Wou-Ki 87 98 $53,197,810 $63,693,472
Yoshitomo Nara 177 201 $45,146,860 $25,001,739
Chu Teh-Chun 33 40 $35,262,023 $23,578,818
Joan Miró 258 312 $33,022,663 $41,285,831
Andy Warhol 323 378 $30,886,459 $29,116,925
René Magritte 49 58 $30,468,078 $42,512,712
Edvard Munch 13 19 $28,747,878 $26,240,741
Vincent van Gogh 2 2 $25,850,165 $19,419,522
Jean Dubuffet 40 50 $24,907,011 $19,306,602
Zhang Daqian 80 94 $21,493,952 $23,014,890
Gerhard Richter 51 58 $19,649,327 $16,019,882
Roy Lichtenstein 112 125 $19,601,445 $17,719,465
Alexander Calder 102 124 $17,771,102 $19,644,190
Daman Hongren 1 1 $16,540,393 $7,081,971
Clyfford Still 1 4 $16,244,495 $18,753,650
Winston Churchill 3 3 $15,673,868 $4,599,303
Matthew Wong 13 13 $14,977,953 $4,949,740
Vasudeo S. Gaitonde 7 7 $14,564,666 $13,853,061
Sanyu 8 9 $13,888,413 $19,586,451
David Hockney 172 185 $13,384,464 $14,115,161

 

Now, let’s take a closer look at a few of the artists who are on this list—as well as a few notable absences.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso is routinely the most-traded and highest-grossing artist at auction. It’s notable that the number of his works sold at auction has remained relatively consistent (it’s hovered between 775 and 850 in the first four months of the year for the past three years). But the average price of a Picasso work, which was in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range in 2019 and 2020, jumped dramatically this year, to $112,228. Rather than being driven by one nine-figure or a couple of eight-figure Picassos, this jump seems to be generated by a growing number of mid-range works coming to market and making solid prices.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde

One of India’s preeminent abstract painters, Gaitonde, who died in 2001, helped define a new artistic language for the country after its independence. He has posted a surprisingly strong performance at auction so far this year—even more surprising since his all-time auction record, $5.6 million for a 1961 teal composition at Saffronart, was set in March, just as a deadly wave of coronavirus began to take hold in the country. Beyond that high-water mark, however, all seven of Gaitonde’s works to hit the market this year have sold at or above their estimates. At this point in 2020, V.S. Gaitonde had not even cracked the top 40 best-selling artists.

Yoshitomo Nara

The Japanese artist has seen a massive increase in the number of his works sold at auction. In the first four months of 2021, 177 of his works found buyers, up 82 percent from the equivalent period in 2019 and up 195 percent from 2020. Whether the market can continue to absorb this much material from Nara over time remains to be seen, but at least in the first portion of 2021, it has helped him beat out market heavyweights like Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter in terms of total auction sales.

Banksy

The market for the anonymous street artist has been accelerated by both a major increase in volume and price—a strong omen for his market. More than three times as many works by Banksy have hit the block in 2021 than they had at this point in 2020 and 2019. But the average price has also grown considerably, from $37,952 in 2020 to $149,552 in 2021. In the process, he went from the 25th best-selling artist to number four.

KAWS

KAWS’s market was on a bull run during this period in 2019 and 2020—but he’s taken a tumble so far this year. More of his works are coming to market than ever (507 lots offered between January and April 2021), but the average price has fallen from $125,061 in the first four months of 2019 to just $9,714 in 2021—a decrease of 92 percent. At this point last year, he ranked as the 16th top-selling artist; this time around the sun, he’s fallen to rank 79.

Damien Hirst

A strong sign that Damien Hirst’s market is on the downslide: In the first four months of 2021, 194 of his works have sold at auction for a total of $7 million. Compare that to last year (several months into a pandemic!), when just 92 of his works had fetched a total of $9.1 million. Hirst ranked as the 10th best-selling artist at this point in 2020; this year, he’s been knocked down to number 52.


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