Bacon, Picasso, Lichtenstein Top 2020 Global Modern & Contemporary Auctions: Analysis

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, oil on canvas, 1981.

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After a period of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic — which was only resolved by a wholesale restructuring of the international auction calendar — the top three houses finally presented hybrid live auctions of their most valuable works early this Summer.

Houses merged the modern and contemporary art categories and updated virtual platforms to draw global audience and bidding clients to a week of live-streamed marquee sales held around the world. Sotheby’s offered the first market test on June 29th;  it yielded $363.2 million. Phillips held a modest $41 million sale comprising mostly works by female and non-white artists. Finally, Christie’s staged a complex, four-auctioneer sale spanning their international sales centers that brought in $420.9 million.

The series of sales were successful enough to encourage Sotheby’s to quickly turn around a second sale, Rembrandt to Richter, to capitalize on the demand. That auction combined a smattering of Old Master works with modern and contemporary art to make $193 million in sales.

Each session proved global demand undiminished by the economic lag. The leading lots of the auctions staged in June and July were by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Joan Mitchell, Joan Miró and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The results from 2019 to 2020 is not a direct comparison due to the reformatted sales but key trends in artists’ markets are still apparent. In Spring 2019, more than $1.2 billion in contemporary art was sold in the New York day and evening sales. That was a rise of 6.7% over the previous year.

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