Collectors charged after works by young, untested artists last year even as overall global auction sales fell by as much as a quarter—a phenomenon many dealers had never seen before the pandemic.
During past downturns, emerging artists saw their prices temporarily plummet or their works disappear from auction catalogs as collectors retreated to the safety of familiar names like Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. In the Covid era, blue-chip heavyweights held their own but the feverish bidding pooled at the market’s most speculative end, with newcomers like Matthew Wong and Amoako Boafo reaching career-high amounts.
Last year, auction sales for artists 40 and younger at the top three houses surged 54% to $51 million, according to ArtTactic, a London-based research firm. That contrasts with 2020’s 39% drop in sales, to $857 million, for the broader swath of contemporary art auctioned at the same houses the year before, the firm said.
Collectors holed up at home fretted about their health but had time and money to pursue artists they coveted before the crisis. Art adviser Lisa Schiff said, “There weren’t a lot of discounts, but some collectors felt like they could get better access to artists if they wanted.”
The trophy set had a steady year, with Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh faring well, but only one work by Francis Bacon topping $85 million. Others were largely absent, such as Claude Monet, who had 47 pieces up for bid in 2019, including a “Haystacks” that sold for $111 million. This past year, only 18 Monets surfaced at auction and the priciest was a $4.7 million landscape sold by the Brooklyn Museum. Jeff Koons, whose mirrored “Rabbit” sculpture sold in 2019 for $91 million, also proved scarce. Last year, his highest auction price was $626,443 for a gilded mirror shaped like a monkey.