Art Market took a big hit but it's Fighting back!

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

  • $84.6 million

  • 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.

No. 2 Roy Lichtenstein's Nude with Joyous Painting, 1994

  • $46.2 million

  • 10 July 2020

  • Christie’s ‘One’ sale (live-streamed, Hong Kong/Paris/London/New York

This huge scale work is one of the twenty paintings that make up Lichtenstein’s ‘Nudes’ series, made from the mid-1990s onwards. The series saw the artist make a return to the subjects that helped launch his career - the comic-book style heroines that dominated the Pop art movement. The work shows a glamorous blonde-haired woman in her bedroom wearing a blue headband, red lipstick and not a lot else. She looks behind her, a somewhat concerned expression on her face. The image focuses upon this woman as Lichtenstein creates a suspense-filled narrative through a closely cropped composition.

Lichtenstein’s typical ‘Ben-Day dot’ style reimagines the long tradition of the female nude as something ultra-modern and ultimately timeless. The artist tackles the history of art and its typicalities through the ‘Nudes’ series, making the subject something worthy of the modern-day through his masterful use of colour, technique and narrative.

Nude with Joyous Painting had not been to auction prior to its appearance at Christie’s ‘One’ sale in July despite passing through many hands after its initial purchase by the Leo Castelli Gallery. Like the previous painting, the work reached the artist’s third-highest price.

It is thought to have been sold by Lorenzo Fertitta, the former CEO of UFC and was won by an anonymous client in Hong Kong.

No. 3 David Hockney’s Nichols Canyon, 1980

  • $41 million

  • 7 December 2020

  • Phillips, New York

This painting by David Hockey captures the artist’s view on his daily commute to work whilst he was a resident of the Californian Hollywood Hills. It marks a shift away from the painter’s typical scenes of swimming pools that he made during the 1960s in Los Angeles and towards great American landscapes. In 1978, fifteen years after he first arrived in California, Hockey bought a property at the top of the Hollywood Hills. Nichols Canyon, therefore, depicts the hills from an almost birds’ eye perspective.

Divided down the centre by a trailing curved road, the composition is bursting with colour. A patchwork quilt of shapes and patterns, this painting is an example of Hockney’s great use of vivid colours and dynamic compositions, techniques inspired by the Fauvism movement. The movement saw the contribution of great European masters of the twentieth century such as Matisse and Picasso, something that Hockey contrasts when applying the style to the American landscape.

The $41 million sales of the work set a record for a Hockney landscape despite falling significantly short of the price usually fetched by his pool scenes (one of which reached an auction record for the artist when it sold for $90 million in 2018). However, this work did sell for slightly over the unpublished estimate of $35 million.

No. 4 Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bolsena), 1969

  • $38.7 million

  • 6 October 2020

  • Christie’s ‘One’ sale, New York

This work is one of fourteen large scale paintings made by Twombly between August and September 1969. During this time the artist worked in the Palazzo del Drago, an isolated stone property that overlooks the lake of Bolsena to the north of Rome. He worked and lived there alone. The painting marks a shift away from his ‘blackboard’ works that Twombly had been creating since 1966, instead of employing a pale ochre background upon which house paint, wax crayon and lead pencil have been applied.

The details on the surface of the work appear haphazard and fragile as they sparsely cover the space. A combination of straight lines forming boxes of various sizes along with sweeping curved lines creates a highly dynamic, geometric style.

According to Twombly, who often imbued his works with themes from classical mythology, Untitled (Bolsena) includes details that allude to the Apollo mission and moon landed that occurred in July of 1969, just prior to his beginning this series. Numbers and dynamic shapes refer to the logistical nature of the space mission.

Prior to its sale, the work had a significant provenance once having been part of the Saatchi collection. After it was put on the market at the Sotheby’s sale in 1992 by the Saatchi Collection, it was bought by billionaire Ronal Perelman. At the ‘One’ sale, it managed to clear its low estimate of $35 million but missed its high estimate of $50 million considerably despite being among the highest valued lots at the evening sale and the subject of keen anticipation.

No. 5 Sanyu’s Quatre Nus, 1950s

  • $33.3 million

  • 8 July 2020

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sanyu, a member of the Parisian School, created a series of large scale female nudes whilst living and working in Paris in the aftermath of World War II. This painting is one of only six grouped nudes amongst his fifty-six nude oil paintings that he made throughout his lifetime. Each of these six works were made during the 1950s yet Quatre nus is potentially the most vivid and impressive. The four nude figures appear to be reclining on some grass, each exhibiting a different pose, hair colour and facial expression.

The painting strikes a wonderful balance between the abstract and the figurative through the contrast of the solid green background and the figures, whose nudeness allows their bodies to remain abstracted yet their faces and individual distinctions form more specifically rendered representative details. The viewer is allowed to embed the scene with their own imaginings through the varying level of restraint in the artist’s depiction of the figurative.

Sanyu clearly references the traditional understanding of women as being closely connected to nature as the women lie in their nude state upon a stretch of grass. The feminine curves of the figures act in place of natural hill formations or mountain peaks. Chinese tradition is also referenced in there being specifically four women within the composition as the famous Chinese tale of the Four Great Beauties made the number significant in Chinese culture. Equally, the work responded to the growing liberal attitudes towards the female body in Europe and the United States during the 1950s as the outstretched forms in the painting mirror the photographs that began to emerge of trendsetters such as Coco Chanel and Brigitte Bardot lounging on boat trips or film sets, exposing tanned skin.

The scene is a vivid combination of the classic and the modern in its traditional subject matter imbued with the modern woman, its abstracted use of form and colour seen alongside heavy online techniques seen in lacquered furniture and Eastern art.

Quatre nus last sold in 2005 for $2.1 million, making its 2020 sale of $33.3 million a significant increase. Selling in just ten minutes, the work was bought by a phone buyer.

No. 6 Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1967

  • $31.3 million

  • 6 October 2020

  • Christie’s 20th Century Sale, New York

This painting by Mark Rothko is an example of his infamous colour field technique. The colour field movement is characterised by simple compositions where colour takes reign. Geometric blocks of colour slot together on the often large scale canvas forming harmonious sections of pigment. This particular example has a deep colour schemes, dominated by the purple hue of the upper field of paint that contrasts with the deep brown lower section. Both of these colours simultaneously correspond and clash with the maroon background of the canvas. These dark colours reflect Rothko’s own personal demons and suggest a future deepening of despair as the colour at the top section of the painting bleeds into the dark strip at the lower. The work is a complex and dynamic visual interpretation of human emotion and elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer.

At Christie’s 20th Century evening sale, this work was one of the significant works being sold by billionaire investor Ronald Perelman who apparently liquidated a large amount of his collection as a result of plans to restructure his financial portfolio. Last sold at auction in 1998 for $1.2 million, Perelman then purchased the work privately in 2002.

Despite the work being from a well respected period of Rothko’s life and artistic output, the painting failed to reach its low estimate of $30 million.

No. 7 Brice Marden’s Complements, 2004-7

  • $30.9 million

  • 10 July 2020

  • Christie’s ‘One’ Sale (live-streamed, Hong Kong/ New York/London/Paris

This diptych by Brice Marden is composed of contrasting orange and blue rectangles, a shape that he described as a 'great human invention’ in the early 1960s. The two rectangles are interrupted by snaking bold lines of yellow, orange, green, blue and red. The continuous curvature of these lines make for a highly dynamic composition that implies fast, sinuous movement that breaks up the solid blocks of colour.

This work is typical of Marden’s late style which is full of vibrance and vivid colour and form choices, meaning that it sold for a record auction price for Marden, going for three times the price his work Number 2 sold for ($10.9 million at Sotheby’s in November 2019). The painting came from the estate of Donald Marron, the former board president of MoMA who passed away in 2019. A majority of his respected collection went to the alliance formed by Pace, Gagosian and Acquavella but Christie’s chairman, Alex Rotter, was able to claim this Marden work for the ‘One’ sale. Its price of $30.9 million brought it closer to the lower end of its estimated $28 million to $35 million.

No. 8 Barnett Newman’s Onement V, 1948

  • $30.9 million

  • 10 July 2020

  • Christie’s ‘One’ sale

Newman’s Onement V actually sold for the same price as the previous work on this list, Marden’s Onement's. Both paintings brought in the second-highest price at Christie’s ‘One’ sale in July.

This work is one of the six Onement paintings Newman made and the series was considered to be his breakthrough. It was in these six works that the artist’s signature ‘zip’ motif first appeared in the 1940s. The stripe of contrasting colour travelling down the centre of the work cuts the painting directly in half and breaks up the monochromatic solid background colour, much in the same way that Rothko uses colour fields and Marden employed the colourful snaking lines in his Complements V. Of this visual technique Newman said that is was the result of his realising that he had previously been ‘emptying the space instead of filling it’ and he understood the zip line to make the composition take on the vivid quality of life.

This particular work was one of two from the Onement series that was still owned privately prior to the Christie’s sale. It sold for $30.9 million to a phone bidder, secured by Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary evening sales, Ana Maria Celis.

No. 9 Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Angers (version ‘F’), 1955

  • $ 29.2 million

  • 10 July 2020

  • Christie’s ‘One’ sale, New York

This piece by Pablo Picasso is part of a fifteen work series made between December 1954 and February 1955. Each of the fifteen paintings is based upon Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix’s Les femmes d’Alger, an Orientalist painting that proved to be a great inspiration for later generations of artists. The original painting depicts fours women, adorned in finery, in an expensively decorated room. Unlike many other paintings of its kind, it shows a less eroticised depiction of the ‘Oriental’ female.

Picasso reinterprets the scene in his typical sharp style, employing bold primary colours and abstracted sharped forms. The reclining female and the highly decorated room are the clearest details throughout the composition, the rest of the painting being disguised by the non-figurative style. Despite the modernity of this work, the resemblance to Delacroix’s original work is striking.

Les femmes d’Alger, along with the other fourteen works in the series, was purchased from Parisian more real Galerie Louise Leiris in by New York collectors Victor and Sally Ganz in June 1956 for $212,00. They later sold this partial work as well as nine others to the Saidenberg Gallery. They kept versions ‘C’, ‘H’, ‘K’, ‘M’, and ‘O’ - although version ‘O’ later sold at Christie’s in New York for $179.4 million in 2015, making it the second-highest price ever reached at auction at the time.

Version F sold in 2020 for $20.2 million, surpassing the estimate of $25 million.

No. 10 Clyfford Still, PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1), 1947

  • $28.7 million

  • 30 June 2020

  • Sotheby's (live-streamed, Hong Kong/Paris/London/New York

This work by Abstract Expressionist artist, Clyfford Still, was painted in 1947, a year after Still’s first solo exhibition in New York City. Despite being an early work, the distinct features of Still’s mature style are already in evidence - the highly saturated colours and tones, rough-edged forms and flat surface. The spreading of the dark colours in contrast to the light suggests an explosion of paint onto the surface of the canvas, a spontaneous and bold bursting of colour.

1947-Y-No.1 perfectly embodies Still’s words - ‘I never wanted colour to be colour. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes. I wanted them all to fuse into a living spirit.’ This work certainly sees the intricate meshing together of these compositional aspects to form a harmonious union of space, line, form and colour.

The painting was a part of the artist’s own collection until 1959 when he personally chose it to be included in his seminal exhibition ‘Paintings by Clyfford Still’ at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo which he himself curated. Before this, the painting had once the previous owner - Mark Rothko was teaching alongside Still at the Californian School of Fine Arts during the summer of 1949 and it was this painting that he asked if he could loan to decorate his rented home in San Francisco. Rothko chose to keep the work with him after he left California to display in his New York apartment.

Sotheby’s secured the work from renowned collectors, the late Harry ‘Hunk’ and Mary Margaret ‘Moo’ Anderson, based on the West Coast. 1947-Y-No. 1 sold for $28.7 million with buyers fees at the Sotheby’s sale in June, staying close to the lower side of the estimated $25 million-$35 million. It failed to reach the artist’s record which stands at $61.8 million for 1949-A-No. 1, sold by Sotheby’s in 2011.

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