An art advisor summed up the mood of the Frieze sales in London last week in a comment on Instagram. Observing the top lots at Sotheby’s Evening sale, the advisor wrote, “So it’s either a major Cy Twombly, OR … a Flora Yukhnovich … hmmm.”
The advisor had purchased the Twombly work on paper for £2.8 million at slightly below the low estimate (the client was surely happy about that.) The chagrinned comment was because the Yukhnovich had made £2.2 million—which was more than 30 times the low estimate on a hammer-price basis.
Cy Twombly had his first show 70 years ago at the Samuel Kootz gallery. Flora Yukhnovich had her MA show four years ago. The painting that was sold for £2.2 million was just shown on her Instagram page 18 months ago. Even though the two works are hardly comparable (relative to each artists’ body of work,) you can see how the Yuknovich sale is emblematic of a market driven by collectors chasing new talents.
Flora Yukhnovich was hardly the only painter to see her work soar above most estimates. The list of artists with the most intense bidding on their work is dominated by painters whose work has only been on the market for a few years; in some cases, these artists were seeing their work sold at auction for the first time.
Among the artists who received the most aggressive bidding during the Frieze auctions were Yukhnovich—who had the top two most in-demand works in the sales—Emily Mae Smith, Ewe Juszkkiewicz, Jadé Fadojutimi, Reggie Burrows Hodges, Isshaq Ismail, Cinga Samson, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Shara Hughes, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones and Hurvin Anderson. (Anderson is one of the few artists with a significant market history who also saw large price-level leaps.)
Bidders may have been elbowing past gallery waiting lists. But the value of the these sales remained concentrated in artists like Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Lucio Fontana and Alexander Calder. Works by Banksy, Hurvin Anderson and Cecily Brown represent a generation of younger, living artists whose work is consistently valued in the millions and were among the top ten lots in these sales.
This dichotomy between vibrant competition at a lower price level, the Yukhnovich not withstanding, and a rather orderly but uninspired market at the top suggests we’re reaching the peak of a market swing toward emerging artists.
Some of the market’s internal numbers indicate we may have not reached that extreme yet.
Let’s compare the Frieze sales from 2019—the last edition of these sales before the global pandemic—with last week’s numbers. In 2019, £231 million in art was sold during the Frieze auctions. Of the 735 lots offered, 83% found buyers for a sell-through rate of 83%. The hammer ratio for the sales was a moderately robust 1.1; and the top ten lots accounted for 28% of the overall sales total.
Last week, the overall total was 22% lower. But the number of lots offered was 44% lower. The sell-through rate was 6% higher. The hammer ratio was an even stronger 1.2; 50% of the sold lots went for prices above the high estimate. In 2019, only 38% of the sold lots went for prices above the high estimate. Finally, this year the top ten lots accounted for 40% of the overall sale value.
These numbers suggest that supply is down and demand is up in the art market. Bidders are chasing lower value works; but those works don’t add up to enough to offset the accumulated value of long-standing names. In other words, Richter, Basquiat, Banksy and others like Twombly still outweigh the value of all of those new names.
Comparing the two seasons, the number that stands out the most is the average price level. In 2019, the average price of a lot at a Frieze auction was £380,144—a significant amount of money in any context. Two years and a great deal of social and economic dislocation later, the average price at 2021’s Frieze auctions was £497,241. That’s almost a 31% rise in average price.
The other dramatic change in these sales from 2019 to 2021 is the market share. These sales have brought a number of new names onto the market share chart, including more women and persons of color. Two thirds of the artists on the list are still men of European descent. But a full third of the list are not.
Richter, Banksy and Basquiat were all among the top four names by market share in 2019. Though Richter and Banksy together accounted for as much as the four names (Fontana had 5.2% of the market share) did in 2019. New names on the market share chart this year are Yukhnovich, Jadé Fadojutimi, Emily Mae Smith, Shara Hughes and Paula Rego. Together they took more than 5% of the money spent in the sale.