Top 10 Contemporary drawing results in the West



In Artprice’s fortnightly series of auction rankings, this week’s Friday Top looks at the best results hammered in the Western art world for drawings by Contemporary artists.

In Europe and the United States, drawing is too often associated with preparatory work. True, the Old Masters secondary market does see a lot of works on paper consisting of sketches and preparatory studies. These studies often did the groundwork for masterpieces, but are generally less interesting than the masterpieces themselves. In contrast, the Chinese art market almost inverts our Western hierarchy, giving preference to calligraphy and traditional painting, and works on paper (rice or silk) generate the nation’s best auction results. In fact, since the explosion of the Chinese art market (centered around 2010), drawing has acquired a central place on the global art market and in 2015 it accounted for a quarter of total global auction turnover from Fine Art.

In the West drawing still only represents a small proportion of auction turnover from Fine Art (9%) compared with painting (74%), and while Contemporary artists are increasingly favoring this medium, the prices of their works are nowhere near the records generated by paintings and sculptures. Moreover, the best drawing results in the West actually reward artists who are not specialists in this medium, thus confirming that drawing is still firmly in the shadows of painting.

Top 10 Contemporary drawing results in the West
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Jean-Michel BASQUIAT $13,605,000 Untitled (1982) 2015-05-11 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
2 Jean-Michel BASQUIAT $1,857,595 Brown Eggs (1981) 2015-07-01 Sotheby’s LONDRES
3 Jean-Michel BASQUIAT $1,030,000 Untitled (1986) 2015-05-12 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
4 Robert LONGO $1,023,171 Untitled (Last Tiger) (2013) 2015-07-01 Christie’s LONDRES
5 Yoshitomo NARA $850,000 Lonesome Puppy (1996) 2015-05-13 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
6 Jean-Michel BASQUIAT $845,000 Untitled (1982) 2015-05-14 Phillips NEW YORK NY
7 Jean-Michel BASQUIAT $659,345 Untitled (1985) 2015-03-10 Sotheby’s LONDRES
8 Robert LONGO $490,000 Untitled (Men In the Cities) (1980) 2015-03-05 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
9 Robert LONGO $454,000 Untitled (Jo) (1982) 2015-11-12 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
10 Enki BILAL $398,790 Nikopol – T. 2, La femme piège, pl. 8 2015-10-05 Artcurial (S.V.V.) PARIS
copyright © 2016


Dominated by Jean-Michel Basquiat, this ranking illustrates the influence of painters on the drawing market. Basquiat’s genius was indeed largely based on his drawing skills — his hand is as recognizable as that of Picasso or Modigliani — and market demand for his signature, one of the most sought-after in Contemporary art, extends to all his creations. In fact his best drawings now fetch as much as his best paintings.

In 2015, Basquiat’s second best auction result was generated by Untitled (1982), a drawing with canvas-like dimensions and quality. Although clearly less accomplished than some of his canvases, it stands out for its immense artistic purity. Untitled (1982) is in no way a painting — just a set of lines depicting a face scrawled on a white sheet of paper — but it perfectly illustrates the artist’s talent. The piece is considered so precious that it was included in Christie’s prestigious New York sale Looking Forward to the Past. However, in general, the drawing market never gets that much exposure. Even Basquiat’s market illustrates this reality: in 2015 the secondary art market exchanged 17 canvases by Jean-Michel Basquiat (8 in New York, 6 in London and 3 in Paris) with each sale attracting plenty of media attention. Meanwhile, his 33 drawings offered in 2015 were far less publicized. Nevertheless, some generated substantial gains for their sellers: Untitled (1985) sold for $543,000 in March 2015 compared with a purchase price of just $40,200 in April 1990, generating a return of 1,250% in just 25 years.

The presence of the American artist Robert Longo in this ranking is a good sign. His charcoals, mostly in black and white, reap unusually high bids for a Contemporary artist specialised in drawing. Indeed his results are even more remarkable considering that his works on paper are not particularly rare at auction, as are, for example, those of his compatriot Raymond Pettibon. Last year, Robert Longo’s signature generated a total of more than $4 million from 30 drawings and a similar performance may well be repeated in 2016, with already more than $1.2 million in drawing turnover.

It is not particularly surprising to find Yoshimoto Nara among drawing’s best results of the year. The market is still showing immense fascination with his magical world populated by little girls and friendly dogs, and, his work is largely based on his drawing skills. In 2015, 10 of his paintings fetched over a million dollars each, with a new record at $3.4 million. So the $850,000 paid for a set of 17 Nara drawings is hardly surprising.

The 10th place in our ranking belongs to an illustration by Enki Bilal, a French cartoonist of Yugoslavian origin. Comic strip art — long scorned by the art market — is currently enjoying rapid price inflation. The French capital has become the main focus for this medium, thanks mainly to the expertise of the Parisian auction house, Artcurial. In 2015, Enki Bilal crept into our top 500 global ranking of artists by auction turnover with an annual total of more than $3 million from $43 lots… no mean feat for a cartoonist.