Top sales of contemporary art in 2020
The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 didn’t leave a stone unturned when it comes to what it affected, the contemporary art market is no exception. The last twelve months have seen the art world respond quickly and effectively to the new demands of coronavirus guidelines through the creation of online exhibitions and the biggest auction houses making the shift to the virtual. The regular auction calendar was disregarded and many of the largest events were held via live stream to buyers across the globe.
This shift to online sales may have proved to have a negative effect on sales as only two of the top sellers exceeded prices of $50 million - 2019 saw nine out of the top ten sellers go beyond this. Potentially buyers unnerved by the unusual medium of transaction or houses were inclined to hold back some of their better material, hoping to save it for a more regular sale environment. However, the newfound potential of virtual auctions will undoubtedly be developed further over the years to come as the year 2020 did see a number of significant sales. The works that reached the highest prices are featured below.
No. 1 Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981
30 June 2020
Sotheby’s (live-stream, Hong Kong/London/New York)
This trio of oil on canvas panels is one of twenty-eight triptych works by Bacon. Inspired by The Oresteia by Aeschylus, the images convey three instances of revenge - the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife on his return from the siege of Troy, a journey that was guaranteed to occur safely due to his sacrificing of the couple’s daughter Iphigenia. The couple’s son Orestes murdering his mother to avenge his father and then Orestes being pursued by the Erinyes or the Furies, three female deities of vengeance.
The abstracted yet clearly mutilated body of Agamemnon dominates the work through its position in the central panel. The side panels show the bodies of the Furies that Bacon based on photographs taken by Eadweard Muybridge of a flying pelican.
The themes of this tale reflect those in Bacon’s own lived experience from the physical abuse inflicted upon him by his father to his enjoying of masochistic homosexual encounters along with the suicide of his lover George Dyer. The triptych form, used in religious altarpieces, creates an interesting contrast with Christian ideas of the crucifixion.
The work was put up for auction by a foundation linked to the Norwegian billionaire industrialist Hans Rasmus Astrup who purchased it initially in 1984. Though the piece is from the period considered to be Bacon’s ‘golden years’, it did not reach to the predicted price of $142.4 million (the price that his Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for in 2013). However, it did sell for the third-highest price paid for a Bacon work at auction (Triptych, 1976 sold for $86.3 million in 2008).
Interestingly, due to the virtual nature of the auction, the underbidder based in China could only increase their online bids by $100,000 whereas their opponent bidder, based via phone line, was able to race ahead with increments of $900,000. The work was won by a client of Sotheby’s specialist Gregorie Bilant.