Top 5 Recent Contemporary Art Auction Sales

The art world has been turned on its head thanks to the coronavirus, and just one of the things impacted by the pandemic is the auction process. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have forced auction houses to close, preventing potential buyers from viewing and purchasing art in person as many normally would. This, paired with the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, means a fall in demand seems almost inevitable. However, some changes to the industry have enabled it to thrive in spite of the challenges.

Plenty of auction houses across the world have adapted to the new normal by taking their activities online. As for interest in the global art market, that doesn’t appear to have wavered much in the last year either. Not only have we continued to sell art through our own auctions, but major auction houses have also reported that the appeal is still there regardless of the virus. For example, in a December 2020 press release, Christie’s revealed that demand remained strong throughout the year, with a high sell-through rate of 81% across all sales.

Here at ArtLife, we have been keeping a particularly close eye on contemporary auctions due to our passion for contemporary, pop and street art. Lots of renowned artworks have sold for millions recently, so here is a rundown of five of the most notable contemporary art auction sales over the past 12 months.

Game Changer By Banksy – $23.2m

Banksy auctions always make headlines, but the recent sale of one of his artworks was particularly exciting. In March 2021, Banksy’s Game Changer was sold for £16.7m ($23.2m) at auction by Christie’s in London, with fees. This was over four times the value of the highest estimate. The painting depicting a little boy playing with a superhero nurse doll first appeared in a foyer at Southampton General Hospital in the UK near the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Game Changer is now the Banksy work that’s sold for the highest price at auction, surpassing the £9.9m ($13.6m) received for his piece Devolved Parliament in October 2019.

In a press release, Christie’s said “Banksy’s gift to the hospital was always intended to be sold.” Proceeds from the sale of more than £16m “will be used to support health organisations and charities across the UK that enhance the care and treatment provided by [Britain’s National Health Service]”. A reproduction of Game Changer will remain on display at Southampton General Hospital.

Warrior By Jean-Michel Basquiat – $41.9m

Warrior, a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, recently set an auction sale record for a Western artwork in Asia when it was bought for $41.9m, with fees, from Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong. The painting is said to represent the struggles of black men in a white-centric world, depicting a black figure with fiery eyes brandishing a sword. This was painted on a six-foot-tall piece of wood using oil stick, acrylic and spray paint. Warrior had come up for auction three times prior to this sale, last selling for $8.7m at Sotheby’s London in 2012.

While Christie’s claimed the March 2021 sale was record-breaking for a Western artwork in Asia, this could be a technicality. Basquiat’s auction sale record is for Untitled, which sold for $110m in Sotheby’s New York in 2017, bought by Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa.

Everydays: The First 5000 Days By Beeple – $69.3m

Another headline-grabbing March 2021 auction was one in which an artwork by contemporary digital artist Beeple sold for a record-breaking $69.3m. The collage titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days consists of a single jpeg file made of digital sketches taken each day for over 13 years. The sale made Christie’s the first major auction house to offer a purely digital art at auction with a unique NFT (non-fungible token) proving authenticity. If you’re interested in digital art and NFTs, check out our sister site ArtGrails.

In smashing the digital art record, Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann, has demonstrated just how much of an appetite there is for NFTs. He is now one of the top three most valuable living artists in terms of auction prices, following only David Hockney and Jeff Koons.

Nude With Joyous Painting By Roy Lichtenstein – $46.2m

Christie’s first major auction following the COVID-19 pandemic — involving auctioneers in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York — brought in a total of $420.9m including fees. The major success story from the July 2020 event was Nude with Joyous Painting by Roy Lichtenstein, which sold for $46.2m at auction with fees. This was significantly more than the $30m estimate.

The 1994 piece was part of Nudes, the artist’s final major series, and features a blonde American beauty wearing just a blue headband and red lipstick who is startled by something outside of the picture. This impressive auction sale was his third-biggest overall, though still some way off Lichtenstein’s auction record price of $95.4m for Nurse in November 2015.

Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus By Francis Bacon – $84.5m

At the time, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud broke the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it fetched $142m in November 2013. More recently, another of his trios has made a splash. Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus sold at auction for $84.5m, with fees, as part of a Sotheby’s virtual auction in July 2020. This was the most expensive lot of the night, taking just over the presale high estimate of $80m.

The work is one of Bacon’s 28 large oil on canvas triptych paintings, and this particular piece is inspired by Aeschylus’ trilogy of ancient Greek tragic plays, The Oresteia. This is now the artist’s third-highest auction sale, following Three Studies of Lucian Freud, and Triptych, 1976 which went for $86.3m in 2008.