What’s hot in the art auction rooms

Art market analyses are always interesting – sometimes for the specifics, more usually for the trends. The specifics can easily be skewed by one-off events; the sales success of a particular artist in a particular year could be down to a major public retrospective of their work in that year, for instance. But trends are generally a sounder basis for conclusions – even if they tend to match the external financial or emotional climate (interest rates rise, buyers pull in their horns, investors get less frisky).

The Hiscox Artist Top 100 for 2024 is published by the eponymous insurer, a major force in its market employing over 3,000 people in 14 countries; Hiscox doesn’t specialise in art, but that’s definitely one of its key areas. It has also been building an art collection itself since 2000, and it now has nearly 1,000 works. The number-crunching was done by the London-based art market research and analysis firm ArtTactic, which very definitely does specialise, and the research is based on auction sales. It covers unique artworks (so multiples and editions are excluded) made after the year 2000, and it covers sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips over the five-year period between 2019 and 2023.

The caveats are obvious: auction sales are more likely to reflect art as an asset class rather than the behaviour of people who enjoy art for its own sake. There’s no particular reason for the five-year window, other than it coincides with Hiscox’s own collection activity. Art made after 2000 represents an equally arbitrary pick, but it does make a good deal of sense – if you aren’t going to cover absolutely everything sold at auction, it makes sense to focus on the contemporary, and in that case the millennium works as well as any other starting point.

The research certainly covers a decent spread – more than 19,000 artworks from more than 5,400 artists. The headline in the press release homed in on Yayoi Kusama, who was the best-selling contemporary artist in 2023 terms of sales at auction – her works made $80.9m last year. David Hockney lost his top spot, but still made $50.3 million. But then, Hockney didn’t have a major profile-raising exhibition in the year; most of Kusama’s works were sold in Hong Kong, where M+ ran a blockbuster Kusama exhibition that showed the local audience what they shouldn’t miss out on.

So we looked for trends, and came up with four.

1There are more artists in the auction rooms

Since 2019, the number of artists selling contemporary artworks at auction has almost doubled. A total of 2,330 artists were represented at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips in 2023, up 22% year-on-year (2022: 1,911 artists).

2Female artists are (finally) getting their due

The number of female artists represented with contemporary artworks at auction has risen significantly – by 179%, from 261 in 2019 to 728 in 2023. Between 2018 and 2022, female artists accounted for 21% of arts auction lots. Last year saw 1,484 lots by female artists, representing 32% of contemporary sales. It’s still not an accurate reflection of the gender balance, but it’s getting better …

But despite the big increase in the number of female artists represented at auction in 2023, there were actually fewer in the top 100 list – 30 in 2023, 33 in 2022. As the Hiscox man put it, “contemporary female artists have always been undervalued and underrepresented. Meaningful progress has been made in recent years, as the market gradually begins to recognise the importance and value of their work, but we are still some way from parity”.

3Younger artists are becoming more prominent in the auction rooms … but not in the bank accounts

More generally, the market for work by artists under 45 has remained busy – 39% of lots sold in 2023, just a couple of pints down on the year before – but they aren’t making as much at auction. The total sales value for artists under 45 was down 43% in 2023 on the year before; and in total these artists accounted for just 21% of sales by value, down from 30% in 2022. There were 27 under-45 artists in the HAT 100 list, against 36 in 2022.

4Flipping is becoming more common

ArtTactic’s research for Hiscox’s Online Art Trade Report 2023 already indicated that art is increasing being seen as a speculative investment. Some 63% of the buyers surveyed then cited this as either a strong or very strong motivation for buying art, up from 58% in 2020 – especially for younger and new buyers.

Flipping to cash in on particular artists or trends, or just to make a short-term profit, brings its own risks, of course; you might not make as much as you were hoping for. In 2023 this was particularly true for pieces from younger artists – sales by those under the age of 45 fell 42% year-on-year to $39 million (2022: $67 million), despite the number of lots remaining more or less the same.

And while the number of ‘wet paint’ works – which came to auction within two years of being made – more than doubled in 2022 from the year before, the report suggests the value of such sales fell 36% to £69 million in 2023. It’s difficult to cite exact figures because the starting price is usually unknown, since the original sale was made privately by a dealer (or possibly by the artist directly).

You can download the full report at no charge here.