Art Basel 2019, Image Courtesy: Art Basel

Art Market in 2021 Summary of the Year

After a very difficult year, the art market is now back at full speed with several records broken and new important trends. From NFTs to new in-demand artists, we look at what has shaken the art world in 2021. 

NFT fever

Named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year, NFTs have been on everyone’s lips this year and have been a complete game changer in the art world. Non-Fungible Tokens are a new kind of assets, fully digital bits of computer code that are part of the Ethereum blockchain and in a way are similar to cryptocurrency technology. The difference is, every NFT is unique and cannot be replaced by another identical one. They’re usually linked to a specific asset that can be anything digital – music or art – and constitute a new kind of ownership and collecting niche allowing for intellectual and creative rights to remain with the artist. Collectibles such as GIFs, video clips or virtual stickers that weren’t a popular investment before are now sought after assets. Investing in NFTs doesn’t require solid art expertise or experience which makes them easily accessible to everyone and draws the attention of young millennial and Gen Z collectors.

Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), Everydays: the First 5000 Days, Auto-immune, One of the 5000 images that comprise the artwork
Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), Everydays: the First 5000 Days, Auto-immune, One of the 5000 images that comprise the artwork

One of the most talked about auctions of the year has been the sale of Everydays: The First 5000 Days at Christie’s. The digital work was created by Mike Winkelmann going by the name of Beeple who was previously a little-known graphic designer. Everydays is an NFT based compilation of five thousand images shared online on platforms such as Instagram. Since no one was sure how to value this new kind of art, the bidding started with no previous estimate and the artwork was bought by a crypto investor known as MetaKovan for an unprecedented sum of $69.3 mln. Although it wasn’t the highest price paid at auction in 2021, it cemented the NFTs position in the art market and proved that digital assets are something more than a short-lived pandemic trend.

The rise of Asian markets

This year has seen Asian markets solidify their position in the global art market with Hong Kong joining London, Paris and New York and becoming an important centre of the art world. Last year, in the light of the pandemic, global auction sales decreased by 20% only to return to the pre-covid numbers in 2021, in big part thanks to the art market boom in Asia. 

Hong Kong first outpaced New York and London in December 2020 only to continue to shift the global art market with its newly found buying power in the following months. In the second quarter of 2021, auction sales in China increased to $1.2 billion – 69% more than the total amount generated in 2019. Around 39% of sales recorded by Christie’s in the first half of the year was attributed to Asian buyers and Western artists such as Basquiat or Picasso became more popular bringing the Hong Kong market closer to its Western counterparts.

Sotheby’s hits the jackpot

In the midst of the pandemic, Sotheby’s is celebrating its most profitable year since the auction house was founded in 1744 with a whooping sum of $7.3 billion worth of art sold so far in 2021. The art market giant owes its massive success to young, tech-savvy collectors who buy art but also luxury items like jewellery, clothing and NFTs. 

The most expensive artwork sold by Sotheby’s this year has been a portrait of a young man by Botticelli hammered for $92.2 mln. Fashion amateurs also witnessed a record-breaking sale when a pair of trainers worn by Kanye West in 2008 sold for $1.8 mln in April. The auction house has also set a record for the most valuable single-owner auction when the Macklowe Collection owned by the real-estate billionaire Harry Macklowe and his ex wife sold for $676 mln as a result of a divorce battle.

Younger generation of collectors undoubtedly contributed to the company’s NFT sales that reached $100 million. “An influx of younger, tech-savvy collectors also saw a landmark crossover into purchases of physical works such as Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez bought by Justin Sun, founder of the cryptocurrency platform Tron, for $78.4 mln”, reported Sotheby’s.

New art market stars

2021 has seen contemporary art sales become dominated by young and emerging artists. According to the London art market analysis firm ArtTactic, in October, 9 out of 10 top performing artworks auctioned at post-war and contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips were produced by artists younger than 45. 

“There is still a lot of energy and interest around that sector of the market – emerging artists and artists of colour whose work is driven by identity and personal narrative,” said Drew Watson of Bank of America. This demand has been more evident during the pandemic partly because of the influence social movements and racial justice protests have had on the society. Buyers are becoming more interested in socially involved works and supporting artists representing certain ideas.

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Post udostępniony przez Flora Yukhnovich (@flora_yukhnovich)

One of the most successful young artists this year has been Flora Yukhnovich (@flora_yukhnovich) – a 31-year-old British painter known for utilising the language and symbolism of Rococo in her works and reimagining 18th century paintings through the prism of contemporary approach. In October, her painting I’ll have what she’s having sold at Sotheby’s London for £2.25 mln surpassing its estimate of £60,000 to £80,000 almost 30 times. Merely a few months before, Yukhnovich’s Pretty Little Thing was auctioned for $1,179,500 at Phillips New York with a pre-sale estimate of $60,000-80,000.

A few months ago, Myths of Pleasure (2017), a painting by British artist Jadé Fadojutimi (@jadefadojutimi) (born 1993) was auctioned at Phillips London for £1.1 mln breaking her previous record of £825,700 set the night before at Sotheby’s. Only a few years ago, Fadojutimi’s works were sold for between £6,000 and £10,000 which shows the fast dynamics of the art market and how quickly prices can rise when it comes to in-demand living artists these days.

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Post udostępniony przez Jadé Fadojutimi (@jadefadojutimi)

The art of self-destruction

Another auction that made the headlines in 2021 was the sale of the infamous Banksy’s work Love is in the Bin, previously auctioned as Girl with a Balloon in 2018 for £1 mln when it was shredded during the auction by a mechanism hidden in the artwork. The buyer decided to keep the work that was later renamed and deemed to be a completely new piece. A few months ago, the painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s London with a pre-sale estimate of £4-6 mln and was hammered for a record-breaking sum of £16 mln after ten minutes of intense bidding won by a buyer from Asia. In just three years, fame that came from the public act of self-destruction increased its value and put an artist not entirely accepted by the art establishment in the same price league as Picasso.

Big-ticket items

The highest price tags of 2021 belong to artists who have been known to break records in the last years and so the sales didn’t come as a surprise. Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) by Pablo Picasso was auctioned at Christie’s New York in May for $103.4 mln making it the most expensive artwork of the year. The portrait, a typical example of Picasso’s style of the first half of the 1930s, is the first artwork to surpass the $100m mark since spring 2019.
Jean-Michel Basquiat remains the most expensive and sought-after Contemporary artist. Twelve of his artworks surpassed the $10 mln mark while his painting In This Case (1983) became the second most expensive work of the year reaching $93.1 mln at Christie’s New York. His popularity has only accelerated this year along with the increase in demand for artists from marginalised communities. Surprisingly though, two of his paintings – The Guilt of Gold Teeth and Made in Japan II – didn’t live up to expectations with the former sold for its lower estimate and the latter remaining unsold.

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About The Author


Art historian and art writer based in London. She is currently studying for an MA in art market and appraisal at Kingston University.

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