We’ve become so used to seeing emerging artists suddenly become the name on every art advisor’s lips that it sometimes blinds us to the market movement happening in plain sight.
It’s hard to move the needle for artists like Andy Warhol who sold nearly $546 million worth of art at auction last year. One painting, the Shot Sage Blue Marilyn accounted for almost 40% of that total when it sold for an underwhelming—can you believe it?— $195 million. The same can be said for Claude Monet who had an explosive year in 2022 selling $540 million in work at auction. Still, Monet’s hammer ratio never got above the auction estimates. That’s because Monet’s market is well-priced by buyers and sellers alike. Even Picasso, who sold $492 million in art at auction last year at prices that reflected some greater demand that might have been expected, still didn’t have a very high overall hammer ratio. Given that more than a thousand works by Picasso traded hands, we can trust that means the Picasso market is functioning well.
The fourth artist by total auction volume in 2022, tells a different story. René Magritte’s market seemed to come out of nowhere last year to achieve $224.9 million in sales. A third of tha total comes from the top Magritte sale of the year: the $79.2 million paid for one of the largest examples of the artist’s famous L’empire des lumières, this one from 1961, showing a daylit sky over a street-lamp illuminated night scene. In all, 57 works were sold for an average price of $3.9 million and a strong hammer ratio of 2.19. Unsurprisingly, more Magrittes will be sold in the first round of sales in London and Paris in March.
Les Lalannes , the artist couple often mentioned in the same breath, actually collaborated on few works. Instead, their discrete practices both saw incredibly strong bidding as two of the four heirs sold work in 2022. François-Xavier Lalanne saw 173 lots totaling $117.6 million sell at a hot 2.88 hammer ratio. Claude Lalanne came in a little further down the list of top artists with 125 works selling for $35.5 million and a strong 2.29 hammer ratio.
How much of the differential between the market value of the male Lalanne and the female Lalanne’s work is the product of a bias against women artists is difficult to isolate; however, between the two Lalannes on the list is Georgia O’Keeffe whose strong showing in the sale of Paul Allen’s art collection raised her hammer ratio for the year to a robust 2.82. Georgia O’Keeffe’s work doesn’t come to market too often. Last year, $62 million of her art was sold at auction but not without a false start. In May, A Sunflower from Maggie was bought in after failing to reach the $6 million low estimate. That doesn’t mean the market was against O’Keeffe. During the same sales cycle, Waterfall, No. 2, Iao Valley, 1939 came to market with a conservative $800,000 estimate. The final price was $2.4 million. That sale would be a harbinger of November’s action. The top lot among the O’Keeffes in the Allen collection was White Rose with Larkspur No. 1 that Allen had bought privately. It was estimated conservatively at $6 million but would eventually sell for more than $26 million. Autumn Leaf II from 1927 had been bought in 2012 for $4.2 million. It was sold for $15.2 million, nearly quadrupling in 10 years. Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds was bought for $1.3 million in 2003 but sold for almost 10 times that amount at $12.2 million in the Allen sale. Of course, that last work was bought in a sale of American art but sold in the pre-eminent single-owner sale of our time which gives you a sense of how O’Keeffe’s work has moved from the periphery to the center of the market.
O’Keeffe had the benefit of an international reputation and it still took many years for her work to be sold in the marquee auctions. Ernie Barnes was consigned to relative obscurity until a Houston oil trader and an LA-based museum patron put his work on the map by bidding it up to $15 million. A total of $31 million in Barnes’s art was sold at auction last year with a blistering 6.19 hammer ratio. That number won’t be sustainable as Barnes becomes more recognized. UTA, the talent agency in Los Angeles, threw a big party for Barnes at Frieze LA. Unless prices shift dramatically, there’s a good chance this market moves to private sales for the foreseeable future.
Shara Hughes has seen remarkably persistent demand for her art over the last two years. In 2022, auction totals reached $30.6 million with 60 works selling. A hammer ratio of 2.3 suggests the auction houses are still able to estimate the works well below where the market actually is.
Another artist normally offered in American art sales, Andrew Wyeth, also was a great beneficiary of the Paul Allen effect. Wyeth saw 13 works sell at auction for $29.9 million at a hammer ratio of 4.2. Most of that upside came from the surprise bidding on Paul Allen’s Day Dream which carried a $2 million estimate and sold for $23.2 million. Four days later, The Wake was sold at Sotheby’s for $4.6 million over a $2.5 million estimate.
Asian markets have been driving the sales of Ayako Rokkaku, the naive painter who has racked up more than $26 million in sales in 2022. Her hammer ratio is a solid 2.16 across a substantial market of 153 lots sold.
The Chinese-Canadian painter Matthew Wong has seen his own market go through two cycles of sales and rising prices. The first came not long after his unfortunate suicide in 2019. But 2022 saw another leg of sales totaling $21.3 million. His 2.03 hammer ratio belies the fact that 2022 also saw his two top auction prices of $5.8 and $5.3 million. Wong also played an important role in Scott Kahn’s market which took off in 2022 with sales of $10 million and a hammer ratio of 2.78.
Finally, a historical Asian artist, Le Pho, has seen powerful market activity as 73 works sold for a total of nearly $17 million at a hammer ratio of 2.39. Asian buyers continue to seek out artists who migrated to Europe in the 20th Century. Le Pho went from Vietnam to Paris following a path similar to market stars Sanyu and Zao Wou-ki. Two of the top three Le Pho prices were set in 2022 with the high-water mark now reaching $2.2 million.
The vibrancy of these markets only underscores the fact that some of the most dynamic bidding takes place within markets that are already well developed, easing entry from new buyers and old.