Printmaking, the art market’s new favorite medium


It’s a fact: the volume of auction transactions in fine art has reached an all-time high. The acceleration in online sales observed since the start of the pandemic has substantially contributed to increasing the population of bidders and boosting the market: some 664,000 artworks changed hands at auctions around the world during 2021, a new annual record.

A recovery momentum was indeed expected after the slowdowns in 2020, but no-one imagined it would be so dazzling. In 2021 the growth in the volume of sales was +30% after a contraction of just under 10% during 2020. If we look at the last 20 years, auction transactions have increased by +161%! Totally globalized by their online presence, auction houses are constantly attracting new bidders.

Among all the creative categories (mediums), the prints medium is continuing to grow, with an exceptional annual total turnover of $529 million from over 143,000 lots sold. This is a new record for the art market’s most affordable medium, which already increased in volume during the pandemic while the other traditional mediums posted contractions.

Million-plus prints

The best prices hammered for prints in 2021 illustrate the preference for Modern and Contemporary works over historical works. Moreover, the living artist Banksy fetched stronger bids than prints created by his defunct seniors, Warhol, Basquiat and Matisse, with a new personal record for a print at $2.8 million for Girl with Balloon. The price of this Banksy print is now higher than Pop Art artist Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1970).


The best results for prints in 2021:

  1. BanksyGirl with Balloon (2003), $2.8 million, Sotheby’s, 29 June
  2. Andy Warhol: Flowers (1970), $2.6 million, Van Ham Kunstauktionen, 16 June
  3. Pablo PicassoSéries 347 (1968), $2.19 million, Christie’s, 22 October
  4. Hokusai: Kanagawa oki nami ura, $1.59 million, Christie’s, 16 March
  5. Gerhard RichterStrip (2011), $1.5 million, Christie’s, 30 June
  6. BanksyGirl with Balloon – Colour AP (Gold) (2004), $1.5 million, Sotheby’s, 25 March
  7. Henri MatisseOcéanie, la mer (1946/48), $1.47 million, Sotheby’s, 29 June
  8. Gerhard RichterStrip (2012), $1.27 million, Christie’s, 15 October
  9. Keith HaringAndy Mouse (1986), $1.2 million, Ketterer, 16 June
  10. Jean-Michel BasquiatBack of the Neck (1983), $1.1 million, Sotheby’s, 25 March
  11. Albrecht DürerAdam und Eva (1504), $1 million, Kornfeld, 17 September
  12. Richard Avedon: The Beatles (1967), $1 million, Christie’s, 15 October

The two old master million-plus results in this medium last year – Hokusai and Albrecht Dürer – both set new records: the first for one of the most famous prints in history, The Great Wave, which fetched $1.59 million, and the second being an all-time record for an engraving by Dürer – a rare proof of Adam and Eve (1504) – which fetched the equivalent of $1 million at Kornfeld in Switzerland, an auction house renowned for its excellent selections of works on paper.

The appreciation of old prints (whatever technique) requires a fair degree of expert knowledge. It is essentially a confidential market in which the highly-valued works (over a million dollars) are always of the greatest rarity and of superb quality. But it is a niche market, unlike the Contemporary art market which is carried by very strong demand. This largely explains the significant price differences between the best old prints and the most popular prints by Contemporary artists. Hence Banksy’s most sought-after print fetched almost three times more than Albrecht Dürer’s truly historical engraving, Adam and Eve!

The right alternative for acquiring a ‘blue chip’ artist

‘Blue chip’ artists are those artists considered the absolute pillars of art history. They are the art market’s most loved signatures, whose unique works fetch millions of dollars and whose positions in the market have been cemented by exceptional sales volumes. They are considered safe investments and enjoy ever-increasing demand.

Picasso, Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Warhol, Keith Haring, but also Murakami, Nara, Banksy and Kaws… are among these blue chip artists and they all have all large collection of prints to their names, allowing their work to change hands at more affordable prices. Auction houses devote plenty of time and space to this production, particularly via sessions entirely dedicated to the field. And, indeed, sales in this medium are flourishing.

On 19 January, Phillips hammered a record for its ‘Editions London’ sales with an overall total close to $7 million,and new world records for six works by Contemporary masters including Banksy, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. Above all, the bidders at the sale, often online or on the telephone, were from 55 countries… A diversity that perfectly illustrates the continuous growth of the otherwise ‘discreet’ printmaking market at the global level.