The highs and lows of contemporary artists



As expected, auction revenue figures for contemporary artists in 2009 contracted quite substantially (divided by 14 in the case of Damien Hirst, and by 3 in the case of Jeff Koons). However, for all that, the market is not in bad condition. The loss of the speculative element has essentially allowed prices to settle back to 2004 levels.

Artprice has established a Top 15 of contemporary artists by auction revenue that allows an appreciation of the key changes in the market during the last decade.
After 2003, four invincible figures occupied the highest positions in the Top 15 contemporary artist by auction revenue: Jean-Michel BASQUIAT, Damien HIRST, Jeff KOONS and Richard PRINCE. However since the rapid emergence of the first Chinese artists on the contemporary market (YUE Minjun, CHEN Yifei and ZHANG Xiaogang) in 2006, the ranking has undergone a spectacular metamorphosis. In fact, 2006 marked a veritable sea-change when Jean-Michel Basquiat lost his first place on the podium to Zhang Xiaogang whose annual revenue amounted to $24.9m.

Sharpest contractions
Damien Hirst passed a very discreet 2009 after literally hitting the auction fever jackpot in 2008: no fewer than 65 adjudications above the $1m line and a revenue total of $230m. Just six years earlier his annual total amounted to two millions dollars! However, Hisrt’s extraordinary performance came to an abrupt halt just after the Beautiful Indside My Head Forever auction at Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September 2008. His unsold rate rocketed from 11% to 55% between September and December 2008 and in just 12 months some of Hirst’s pieces had fallen back to their 2004 prices, eliminating four years of speculative inflation. For example, a year after Christie’s bought in his Butterfly painting I Miss you on 21 October 2008 (during the market’s meltdown), it offered the same painting at half the price! Going under the hammer for the equivalent of $450,000, the piece almost returned to its initial 2004 auction price: $415,000 (£230,000 – 18 October 2004, Sotheby’s).
With collectors and investors showing far more limited appetites in 2009, the sales catalogues were much thinner, particularly concerning Damien Hirst. In 2009 the auctions houses offered only a third of the number of Hirst sculptures and a quarter of the number of Hirst paintings compared with the previous year!
After the 65 seven-figure results in 2008, Hirst’s work generated only 2 in 2009. Both were from his two Butterfly series. Tranquility fetched HKD 12m ($1.5m) on 15 May 2009 and The Importance of Elsewhere-The Kingdom of Heave sold for HKD 15.5m (just under $2m) on 7 October 2009. In addition, both results came from Seoul and not from London or New York, demonstrating the formidable dynamism of the Asian market and the unease of the US art scene.
In effect, during 2009 the auction houses clearly decided to reduce their offer of the most speculative contemporary artists and present a relatively larger number of less well-known artists in order to avoid the risk of a buying freeze and an even larger contraction of the big name price indices.
For example, compared with 2008, only one fifth of the number of works by the Indian artist Subodh GUPTA’s (10th in the 2008 Top 15 with total sales of $15.1m) was offered at auctions. His best result in 2009 – after signing 2 seven-figure results in 2008 – was €130,000, ($170,000) for an untitled work at Christie’s in Paris on 17 March 2009.
Gupta was not among the Top 15 in 2009.

Unsurprisingly, BANKSY also posted a much slimmer performance in 2009 after two seven-figure results in 2008 and an annual revenue total of $12.5m catapulted him into the Top 15 at 13th place. His best 2009 result came from the resale of a work entitled Insane clown for $320,000 at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York on 12 November. The painting lost around $80,000 on its previous result of 2008 (29 June 2008).
The spearhead of the Japanese contemporary art scene, Takashi MURAKAMI, was one of the world’s fifteen most expensive artists in 2003 with a revenue total of $3.4m, and in 2008 his works generated no less than $32m. But Murakami is conspicuously absent from 2009 ranking despite the fact that the entry ticket was only $3.4m.
Among the other Top 15 absentees in 2009 were Jack VETTRIANO whose 2004 total of $7.2m gave him 6th position behind the heavyweights Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Maurizio CATTELAN and Richard Prince (in fact he has been absent since then). Cindy Sherman has also been absent since 2004 along with Susan ROTHENBERG since 2003 and Mark TANSEY since 2002.