We’re often asked what the artworks that attract top prices are and what can explain the figures that reach stratospheric heights. To date, the most expensive piece of art is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi which sold in November last year for USD450 million at Christie’s in New York. King Louis XII of France commissioned the 44 x 66 cm painting in 1605. Next comes Interchange, an abstract canvas painted by Willem de Kooning in 1955. It was sold privately in 2015 for USD300 million, the highest price ever paid in a private sale for an artwork. The third highest price goes to Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, painted in 1892, which was bought for USD250 million by the Royal Family of Qatar in a private sale in 2011.

Art existed well before money, as evidenced by prehistoric rock art. Like currency, the financial value of art is based on a collective agreement. Nowadays, increasingly wealthy buyers compete for instantly recognisable artist names. As a result, the art market announces one record price after the other.

With the emergence in recent years of buyers from Eastern Europe, the Gulf and Asia, a spate of new records have been set. These are buyers who are often in search of trophies and who have deep pockets to secure these. The price achieved by Salvator Mundi was reportedly due to a bidding war between the Saudi royal family and the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who both assumed they were bidding against their arch-rival, the Qatari royal family. The painting was previously owned by the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev.

The quest for name-brand artists has resulted in a top heavy art market. According to the database of fine art prices Artnet, a mere twenty-five artists account for nearly half of all post war and contemporary auction sales. For the first semester of 2017, these artists’ works accounted for USD1.2 billion worth of sales and represented 44,6% of the USD2.7 billion total generated by all contemporary auction sales worldwide. The African American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat took the first spot for that period. This can be directly attributed to the extraordinary USD110.5 million achieved for the sale of his painting Untitled at Sotheby’s in May last year.

When it comes to artist demographics for highest prices paid, this certainly does not constitute the norm. The top is usually white and male, and about fifty percent American for contemporary art sales. Only two women made that list. The 89 year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma came at number nine and the Canadian born abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004) at number twenty-five. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein held the second and third place respectively.

In March this year, the sale of Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter, a monumental painting which raised nearly USD12 million at Phillips in London, marked the highest-ever auction price achieved by a living African American artist. Two months later, this record was broken by the sale of Past Times, a 1997 painting by Kerry James Marshall, which rapper and producer Sean Combs bought for USD21.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York. Says Marshall, ‘This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world where a black person took part in a capital competition and won’.

South Africa presents an interesting case. While the ten most expensive artworks are yet to include pieces by black artists, paintings by Irma Stern grab the top four slots - as well as the last four! The most expensive, Arab Priest, sold for over GBP3 million at Bonhams in London in 2011. Two years later at Strauss & Co in Johannesburg, the sale of a large sculpture by Cape Town artist Jane Alexander, named Untitled 1985/6 and informally known as the fourth Butcher Boy, sold for R5.45 million, breaking the record for any South African sculpture sold at auction, a record that remains unbroken to this day.

In 2008, the painting The Visitor by South African born Marlene Dumas achieved USD6.3 million at Sotheby’s in London. At the time, Dumas became the most expensive living female artist at auction. South Africa seems to be a record breaking ground for women artists. The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who passed away in 1986, holds the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a woman. In 2014, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 painted in 1932 sold for USD44.4 million at Sotheby’s.

What explains these sky-high prices? When an artwork is first sold on the primary market, price is determined by production time, material costs, the standing of the artist and the marketing skills of the dealer. On the secondary market, when an artwork changes hands, price gets determined by the principle of supply and demand. Rarity becomes key and so does quality. The impressionist artist Monet died at 86 and produced 2000 paintings in his lifetime. Van Gogh died at 37 and painted 864 works. Less prolific, Pollock died at 44 but only produced 382 artworks.

The more artworks by name-brand artists in public museums, the less in the market and the higher the price of those in circulation can fetch. Salvator Mundi, dubbed ‘the last da Vinci’, was the first painting by the artist discovered since 1909 and one of fewer than twenty paintings that are generally accepted as from the artist’s hand. This is a work of art that is exceedingly rare indeed.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

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