Basquiat and Koons account for 12% of the contemporary art turnover

[23.10.2020]

Over 30,000 artists sell publicly, but the market essentially turns on the top 100.

The big names in Contemporary Art attract crowds to museums and lend credibility and prestige to collections, whether public or private. With works valued at tens of millions of dollars, much of the market’s interest is focused on these high-end signatures. In fact, three-quarters of global auction turnover in the Contemporary Art segment is generated by just 100 artists, out of more than 30,000 whose works make it to auction. In other words, the economic health of the Contemporary Art Market relies on 0.3% of the artists it represents!

Together, Basquiat and Koons account for 12% of the global turnover.

Moreover, this turnover concentration becomes evermore apparent at the summit of the top 100: in 20 years, Basquiat, Koons, Hirst and Wool generated $4.4 billion, or nearly 20%, of the Contemporary market’s total global turnover. Basquiat was already the most sought-after and the most expensive artist in the year 2000. What has changed are the price levels.

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The Basquiat locomotive

The start of the Contemporary Art Market’s price inflation dates back to 1998 when the segment posted its first 7-digit auction result. Less than 20 years later, the segment had a result of over $110 million on its books, a level that even a few months before would have been unimaginable for a work created in the 1980s. Both paintings were created by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose works now change hands at price levels that were previously reserved for Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.

(…) Major works by Basquiat regularly return to the Market, upping their prices by a few million dollars. In cases where his works have been resold (or flipped) relatively quickly, sometimes the speed of resale has impressed and other times the size of the capital gain. For example, the painting Orange Sports Figure (1982) went to auction three times: in the early 90s it sold for $66,000; in 2012 it fetched $6.4 million and in 2015 it went for $8.8 million at Sotheby’s. However, the most impressive example takes us back to the record of $110.5 million hammered in 2017 at Sotheby’s New York. The painting in question (Untitled, 1982) was purchased for $19,000 in 1984 and was resold 33 years later for 5,800 times that amount!

Basquiat has literally dominated the entire Contemporary market. In the most prosperous years, public sales of his works represented up to 15% of the global Contemporary Art auction turnover… 15% alone… versus the 25 to 30 thousand Contemporary Artists whose works were sold during the year. Only one other artist comes anywhere near Basquiat’s performances at Contemporary Art auctions… his creative antithesis, Jeff Koons.  

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Koons and the subjects of a new cult…

The second decisive figure of the Contemporary Art Market is also American. A former Wall Street broker, Jeff Koons dreamed of art and created his first art fabrication works in the 1980s. In an attempt to expose the mechanisms by which « consumer products can be glorified », he took as his subjects household appliances, toys, party favors, heroes of popular culture including Popey, the Hulk and Michael Jackson. Koons invented luxury kitsch, an art that is both popular and ostentatious. Adored by some, hated by others, the ambassador of American neo-pop was recently consecrated as the most expensive living artist on the planet. Behind his American-style success, he expanded not just the methods used to create art, but also the ways in which it is distributed, astutely navigating between the spheres of art, industry and business.

(…) Jeff Koons’ celebrity and the prices of his works have grown steadily over the past 20 years. It all started in May 2000 with the sale of a porcelain work, Woman in tub (1988, edition 3/3), for $1.7 million. The same work fetched a million more the following year ($2.9 million, edition 1/3, Christie’s, May 2001). In June 2008, Koons reached a new level when his Balloon Flower (Magenta) (1995/2000) sold for a new personal record at just under $26 million, a result that temporarily gave him the title of ‘most expensive living artist’. 

In 2019, he regained the status of world’s most expensive living artist thanks to a sculpture which sold for $91 million. The object of the new record was Rabbit (1986) – considered the most iconic of his works and, by extension, one of the most iconic works in the entire canon of Contemporary Art. Indeed, the notion of « iconic » is key to understanding this success, and Christie’s clearly understood this, displaying the word ICON in neon letters on the facade of its premises at the Rockefeller Center before the sale.

The ambassador of American neo-pop recently consecrated as the most expensive living artist on the planet.

Convinced its sale would mark an important moment in Art Market history, Christie’s invested colossal means to ensure the promotion of Jeff Koons’ chrome rabbit, going so far as to set up an exhibition room under the building’s rotunda. As an « Icon of Contemporary Art », Koons’ Rabbit evokes the Playboy logo as well as Bugs Bunny and kids’ birthday parties. In Rabbit Koons effectively appropriates an art of sampling that was common since the 60s and Pop Art, but, in this case, the aesthetic thrill is in its formal perfection. The work’s shining surface will not tolerate the slightest mark or imperfection… not the slightest accidental ding or scuff.

Advocating a visual culture of pleasure, popular in its imagery, sophisticated in its construction, Koons has opened a path that new artists continue to explore, and new collectors continue to be attracted to. With $938 million of artworks sold at auction in 20 years, Jeff Koons is the world’s most successful contemporary artist behind Basquiat. Koons is however a far cry from Basquiat’s expressive rage. Opposites, these two artists from the same generation embody the divergent trends of the same era.

Extract from, “20 years of contemporary art at auction” by Artprice.
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