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Warhol Tops Picasso Sales, Richter Leading Living Artist

"Lotus and Mandarin ducks" by Zhang Daqian. The work fetched HK$191 million ($24.5 million) at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in May 2011. Source: Artprice via Bloomberg

Andy Warhol has supplanted the Chinese ink painter Zhang Daqian as the world’s biggest seller at auction.

Works by the U.S. pop artist fetched $380.3 million in sales in 2012, also beating Pablo Picasso, according to figures compiled by the database Artnet for Bloomberg News. The two western artists -- who died in 1987 and 1973 respectively -- had totals exceeding those for 80-year-old Gerhard Richter, the top living artist, with Zhang tumbling to fourth place from first.

The rankings reflect the increasing dominance of western postwar and contemporary works in the international art market. Auctions in this category at Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York in November raised a record $1.1 billion, more than twice the total of the previous week’s Impressionist sales, where Picasso traditionally shines.

“Contemporary art is where the dynamic energy is at auctions,” Jonathan P. Binstock, senior adviser in postwar and contemporary art at Citi Private Bank Art Advisory & Finance, said in an interview. “The market is selective and concentrated on works by certain artists. The instant recognizability of masterpieces by Warhol and Richter makes them well suited to performing well.”

The ranking of auction sales for artists born after 1880 shows demand for Warhol barely exceeded the $379.4 million raised in 2011.

Warhol’s all-time auction sales climbed to $2.9 billion in 2012, while Picasso’s reached $5 billion.

Munch Record

This last year, Picasso lost his long-held reputation as the world’s priciest artist at auction. “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) became the most expensive artwork at a public sale when it fetched $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, New York, in May. The previous high had been the $106.5 million paid for Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” in May 2010.

Picasso’s total auction sales were also down, slipping to $334.7 million last year from $366 million. The average sale price declined to $1.5 million from a record $1.6 million, according to data supplied by Artnet. All its figures include auction-house fees.

“Supply is the problem,” said the London-based art adviser Wendy Goldsmith. “There weren’t as many good examples from the right periods coming up for auction last year. The market still loves Picasso. People just don’t want to let them go.”

Statue Silkscreen

Picasso’s 1932 “Nature Morte aux Tulipes” was the 10th most expensive artwork sold at auction in 2012 when it fetched $41.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in November. The following week, Warhol’s 1962 “Statue of Liberty” silkscreen raised $43.8 million at Christie’s.

The Spanish-born artist was top of Artnet’s rankings in 2010 with $386 million of auction sales.

Richter’s $298.9 million total in 2012 was a 48.8 percent increase on 2011, putting him in third place. The German painter ranked sixth in 2011.

Boosted by the record 21.3 million pounds ($34.2 million) for a 1994 abstract owned by Eric Clapton at Sotheby’s in October, Richter this year joined a select club of post-1880 artists whose all-time value of auction sales has exceeded $1 billion, according to Artnet.

“It’s been an incredible two years for Richter,” Binstock said. “There’s a consensus that he belongs to the top echelon of artists. There’s intelligence in his market, though demand does tend to be specific for abstracts from the 1980s and 1990s.”

Auction sales of Zhang, who died in 1983, slumped to $241.6 million from $782.4 million. Economic and political uncertainty reduced domestic demand for Chinese art in 2012, dealers said.

Sales were relatively smaller for the former contemporary art market darlings Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Koons was ranked the 31st biggest-selling artist in the list with $43.8 million of sales, an increase of 5.1 percent on 2011. Hirst ranked 42nd with $28.9 million, a decline of 10.2 percent on the year before.

Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art, Peter Rainer on film and John Mariani on wine.

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