After the COVID-sparked chaos of 2020, there was reason for hope heading into 2021. In-person events seemed poised to return, a possibility that would kick-start an art world that had scrambled to find replacements for the experience of viewing art in person. The year ended up being an experience in compromises, incorporating both COVID-necessitated distance and bouts of proximity when possible, but the secondary market seemed unequivocally healthier in comparison to the prior year. Lots once again rose above the $100 million mark after failing to do so in 2020 for the first time in years, and new entrants in the realm of crypto-backed NFTs signalled hope for the future.
The most expensive artworks sold at auction in 2021 may be mostly dominated by familiar faces—male artists from the 19th and 20th centuries—but that may be a signal that we are coming back to business as usual, for better or worse.
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932)
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), 1932. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
The most expensive work sold at auction this year—and the only one to break the $100 million mark—was Pablo Picasso’s 1932 portrait Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), which sold for $103.4 million at a Christie’s New York sale in May. The bright-hued painting of Picasso’s muse Marie-Thérèse Walter bounded past another portrait of a lover, 1941’s Dora Maar au chat—which sold for $95.2 million in 2006—to nab the fifth-highest auction result for the artist. Femme assise had previously come up for auction in 2013, when it sold at Sotheby’s London for $44.7 million; before that, it had sold for $6.8 million in 1997. This latest hammer price represents an increase of more than 1,400% from the painting’s original price at auction, and bodes well for the modernist icon’s market.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, In This Case (1983)
Jean-Michel Basquiat, In This Case, 1983. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
Christie’s marquee spring sales were also witness to the second-highest result of the year, when Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 masterwork In This Case fetched $93.1 million at the auction house’s 21st-century evening sale. In This Case is the last of Basquiat’s iconic trinity of “Skull” paintings, which he produced between 1981 and 1983. The only other “Skull” painting to come to auction, 1982’s Untitled, sold for more than $110 million in 2017—a result that still holds as Basquiat’s auction record and as the most expensive work by an American artist at auction. In This Case didn’t quite reach those heights, but its combination of rich reds, signature symbology, and, of course, the iconic skull motif was enough to push it past all previous paintings offered by the artist.
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a young man holding a roundel (ca. 1470–80)
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a young man holding a roundel, ca. 1470–80. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
One of the last privately owned Sandro Botticelli paintings hit the auction block this year, and made a splash doing so. Portrait of a young man holding a roundel started the year off on a high note when it sold for $92.1 million at a January Sotheby’s sale, a more than ninefold increase over the Early Renaissance painter’s previous record of $10.4 million, achieved in 2013. The piece came from the collection of the late real estate mogul Sheldon Solow, who bought the work for $1.3 million at a Christie’s auction in 1982. Roundel’s stratospheric sale not only made it Botticelli’s new auction record: The work is now also the second-most expensive Old Master painting ever sold, trailing only Leonardo’s earth-shattering Salvator Mundi, which is currently the most expensive artwork ever sold.
Mark Rothko, No. 7 (1951)
Mark Rothko, No. 7, 1951. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Mark Rothko’s No. 7 was brought to auction as part of Sotheby’s sale dedicated to the collection of the recently divorced Harry and Linda Macklowe. The Macklowes put up some 65 total prized works by icons including Rothko, Andy Warhol, and Lucio Fontana in order to more accurately account for the pair’s finances as they head into divorce proceedings. This stunning Rothko nabbed the highest result from the collection, selling for $82.4 million—making it the artist’s second-highest sale ever, trailing only Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), which sold for $86.8 million in 2012. The 35 pieces presented in this iteration of the Macklowe sale—the rest will be sold in May 2022—combined to sell for more than $675 million, beating out the collection’s high estimate of $619 million and achieving a rare white-glove sale, with every lot sold.
Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez (1947)
Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez, 1947. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Another work from the Macklowe collection, this haunting suspended sculpture by Alberto Giacometti landed squarely within its estimated price range to sell for $78.4 million, achieving the second-highest price of the evening. Le Nez, with its beguiling combination of distended yet still humanlike features and unique hanging presentation, helped push the sculpture into the top five prices for a Giacometti work at auction, beating out a 2010 sale of a sculpture for $53.2 million to nab the fourth-highest spot; Giacometti’s top three results are all in excess of $100 million. Le Nez sold to the 31-year-old cryptocurrency baron Justin Sun, who plans to donate the work to his ongoing NFT foundation project, which is focused on establishing famous artworks and artists on the NFT blockchain.
Vincent van Gogh, Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès (1889)
Vincent van Gogh, Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès, 1889. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
This enchanting landscape by Vincent van Gogh was the breakaway high result of a Christie’s sale of the late oil baron Edwin Cox’s collection of Impressionist art, with works by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre Bonnard. Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès, with its combination of signature Van Gogh motifs including olive trees, swirling gestural flourishes, and powerful swatches of cerulean and green, beat out a number of strong pieces by Cézanne and Van Gogh himself to earn the highest result of the sale and nab the number-four spot in the Dutch master’s current auction standings. The other Van Gogh works that hit the block as part of the Cox collection that night also sold well, with both Meules de blé (1888) and Jeune homme au bleuet (1890) blowing past their high estimates. When taken in combination, these results—and Cabanes especially—signal a resurgent market interest in Van Gogh’s late-career works.
Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917)
Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, 1917. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Van Gogh’s painting just narrowly beat out this work by another iconic Impressionist, which sold at a Sotheby’s spring sale for $70.3 million. Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917–19), which was included in the house’s May evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, is a prime example of Claude Monet’s signature artistry, full of languid brushstrokes and dreamy colors—and, of course, his beloved water lilies. The $70 million final hammer price places the work firmly in the middle of the artist’s top 10 auction results, dominated mostly by similar paintings of lilies, as well as Monet’s other favored motif, the pastoral haystacks. Le Bassin—the fifth-highest auction result for a piece by Monet—trails the fourth-highest hammer price by $10 million, but stands a cool $15 million ahead of the next result, achieved by another lilies painting at a Sotheby’s sale in 2015. This latest result is part of a promising upswing in the Impressionist master’s work at market: Four of his top five results at auction have been achieved in the past five years, with the current top lot, 1890’s Meules, selling for $110.7 million in 2019.
Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (2021)
Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
The sale of this non-fungible token (NFT) for a whopping $69.3 million was perhaps the biggest art market story of the year. The work—a composition containing works from the series “Everydays” by the artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple—was significant for being the first NFT sold by a major auction house when it was included in a Christie’s sale this spring. Everydays started bidding at just $100, but over the next few weeks, it would blow past the $1 million barrier, ending up at a price around $9 million the day before the sale ended. From there, bidding grew in leaps and bounds to end up at this astonishing final hammer price, one that landed Beeple among the top three most expensive living artists at auction, alongside David Hockney and Jeff Koons. The ramifications of this stratospheric sale are still being felt, but the $69.3 million sale of Everdays can be seen as a blinking neon signal of the widespread eagerness for new modes of collecting and distributing art in our digital age.
Jackson Pollock, Number 17 (1951)
Jackson Pollock, Number 17, 1951. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
This prime Jackson Pollock painting from Sotheby’s sale of the Macklowe collection more than doubled its low estimate to sell for $61.1 million, in the process becoming the most expensive Pollock work to ever sell at auction. The eight-foot-tall monochromatic gestural painting was the third-highest result of the sale, but still managed to shoot past the previous Pollock record holder of $58.4 million, achieved in 2013. It’s the most promising Pollock auction result in some time. In 2018, a number of signature drip paintings sold for prices ranging up to $55.4 million, but Pollock’s secondary-market appearances have lingered in the lower registers in the years since. This sale bodes well for the Abstract Expressionist icon’s market, and helped push the Macklowe sale to its estimate-shattering heights.
Cy Twombly, Untitled (2007)
Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2007. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
This vibrant untitled Cy Twombly painting from 2007 was yet another work by a 20th-century icon that sold as part of the Macklowe sale at Sotheby’s in November. The late-period work, which features Twombly’s signature gestural marks spread across nearly 20 feet of canvas, sold near the top of its estimate range, hammering at $58.9 million and becoming the third-most expensive Twombly work at auction in the process. Much of the late artist’s current auction standings hail from his iconic period of production ranging from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, when he was producing more muted, calligraphic works, like his current auction record, 1968’s Untitled (New York City), which sold for $70 million in 2015. This result, when coupled with the 2017 sale of a piece from the same era for $46.4 million, may signal a rising market interest in the artist’s late period.