Billionaires Chasing Warhols Fuel $16 Billion Art Sales

Alberto Giacometti's
Alberto Giacometti's "Chariot" is sold for $101 million at Sotheby's on Nov. 4 in New York. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Andy Warhol was the top-selling artist at auction in the past year as increased competition for the most-expensive segment of the market drove global art sales higher.

Collectors bought 1,295 works by the deceased artist totaling $653.2 million, ahead of sales for Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, according to preliminary figures by New York-based researcher Artnet. Auctions worldwide rose 10 percent to $16 billion.

Art sales have more than doubled from $6.3 billion in 2009, as surging financial markets lifted the fortunes of the world’s richest. The top 400 billionaires added $92 billion in wealth this year, for a net worth of $4.1 trillion as of Dec. 29, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Bidding for the most coveted artists has been driving much of the surge in auctions, said Jeff Rabin, a principal at advisory firm Artvest Partners in New York.

“The headline number is not so much a comment on the art market as it is on global wealth,” Rabin said. “We haven’t seen a considerable increase in the number of objects sold. We have seen price appreciation at the top end.”

A record $2.3 billion of art was auctioned over two weeks in New York in November. As part of those auctions, Christie’s on Nov. 12 sold 75 contemporary works for $852.9 million, a record for an evening auction.

“That total in one evening sale for less than 100 works is extraordinary,” Rabin said.

No Women

At $16 billion, this year’s art sales would be the second-highest on record. The Artnet numbers for 2014 are preliminary, and final figures next week could still surpass the previous record of $16.3 billion, set in 2011. The figures take into account sales of paintings, drawings and sculpture but not other collectibles such as furniture or decorative objects. The numbers also don’t include private sales.

No women were among the top 10 artists in 2014, and only one, Gerhard Richter, 82, is still living.

Warhol, who died in 1987, had two of the most expensive works at auction in 2014. “Triple Elvis,” a 1963 silkscreen of Elvis Presley in a publicity image for the movie “Flaming Star” in which the singer is shown as a cowboy with a gun, sold for $81.9 million.

“Four Marlons,” a 1966 canvas depicting four identical images of a young Marlon Brando wearing a leather jacket and a cap in a still from the movie “The Wild One,” fetched $69.6 million. Both works were sold in November at Christie’s in New York.

Chinese Artists

Picasso was the second-biggest selling artist, with 2,820 of his works fetching $448.7 million. Although he didn’t have an individual work among the top sellers, collectors sought out the artist because he had “an incredible body of work and multiple periods of exceptional work,” Rabin said.

Bacon, Richter and Mark Rothko rounded out the top five artists. Two Chinese artists, Qi Baishi, known for painting shrimp, fish and frogs, and Zhang Daqian, who was famous for his landscapes, ranked sixth and ninth, respectively. Claude Monet was seventh, with $252.1 million of his works sold. Jean-Michel Basquiat was 10th, at $172.2 million.

Alberto Giacometti’s “Chariot” sculpture of a painted bronze figure on wheels ranked as the most expensive work at auction this year, when it sold for $101 million in November at Sotheby’s in New York. The artist, who died in 1966, ranked eighth among the top 10 artists with 140 of his works selling for $235.2 million.

‘Black Fire’

Although they didn’t rank among the top 10 artists, Cy Twombly, Barnett Newman and Edouard Manet took spots among the top sales. After Giacometti’s sculpture, Newman’s “Black Fire I,” a canvas of vertical blocks of black and beige, was the second most-expensive sale at $84.2 million at Christie’s in May.

A rare 1970 painting of white concentric loops on a gray background by Twombly set an auction record for the artist in November at Christie’s, fetching $69.6 million.

Manet’s “Le Printemps,” a portrait of a woman with a parasol, was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for $65.1 million at Christie’s on Nov. 5.

Bacon, Rothko and Amedeo Modigliani also had works among the top 10 sales of 2014.

An untitled abstract painting by Joan Mitchell sold for $11.9 million at Christie’s in New York in May, setting an auction record for a woman artist. Georgia O’Keeffe broke that record six months later, when her painting “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s on Nov. 20.

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