The first-half of 2021 draws to a close and art galore more than ever before at auction house Christie’s. In fact, the international auction house has clocked $ 3.5 billion in sales so far, with a 13% growth as compared to its half-year sales in 2019—fuelled by online and private sales. And seven of the 12 most expensive art works at auction in this first half of the year were sold by Christie’s—including Picasso’s Femme assise prés d’une fenêtre— the first masterpiece to sell for more than $100 million in two years.
One of the biggest trends that have led directly to this high growth has been the NFT (non-fungible token) revolution. “At Christie’s we’ve been pioneers of NFTs coming on to the auction market, and are leading with sales totalling $93.2 million for the first half of 2021, more than double of any competitor,” said Sonal Singh, managing director, Christie’s India.
“With the NFT market drawing in a new and younger audience (with an average age of 38 years), they’re a good 10-13 years younger than in Christie’s other sales. Plus, 73% of the NFT buyers are new to Christie’s (out of which several have already purchased at Christie’s traditional auctions),” she added. Another factor that has led to this jump in numbers is spending by Asian clients – $1.04 billion represents the highest half year total in the past five years.
What is getting the most buzz is the NFT-based work of art by Mike Winkleman’s, aka Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days. “It’s a monumental work comprising 5,000 individual images created over the course of as many days, that let you zoom in to see Beeple’s evolution as an artist pixel by pixel, over a 13-year career,” said Singh.
An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically, a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to show ownership rights in the digital asset space, and each is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoins—which are identical and interchangeable. The First 5000 days was sold in an online sale only in March for $69.3 million, with 22 million visitors tuned in from all over the world.
Online sales have also grown, with Christie’s conducting two-thirds of its sales online, and one-third online as live or hybrid auctions. “The new hybrid digitalization of our auctions created an extraordinarily accessible environment in which anyone can now witness and participate in a sale taking place across the globe, underlined by the 30,000 clients that have engaged to date in these hybrid sales,” said Singh. “Going forward, we aim for a balanced 50:50 approach for live and online sales.”
The online sales are enticing newer buyers—with 30% of all buyers transacting with this auction house in this first half of 2021 being new. “Out of these, 31% of new buyers are millennials while 32% are women,” told Singh. “New buyers to date come first from EMEA (39%), followed by the Americas (33%) and thirdly from the APAC region with 29%. The average age of our traditional clients is around 48 to 55 years of age,” she added. Asian buyers formed 39% of buyers. Indian buyers from India and those residing abroad are normally split evenly—but last year saw more activity from those living in the Americas—followed by those living in India/Asia, and then Europe. “For our Indian clients specifically, 2021 has been hard with the second Covid wave hitting the country badly and that was reflected in the bidding and buying activity,” said Singh.
Perhaps the work that has garnered the most attention this year has been Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise près d'une fenêtre, which was the fifth work by the Spanish artist to sell for a nine-figure price—nearly double its estimate. The painting was sold for an eye-watering $103.4 million in May at Christie’s New York live evening sale. “Painted on 30 October 1932, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) is one of the final great portraits that crowns the euphoric series of masterpieces from this seminal year,” said Singh.
A few world-record prices have already been reached this year, one for the work by probably the most famous Old Master in history—the Italian genius of the Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci, and the other—for a piece by the most talked-about and mysterious artist of our times—U.K.-based Banksy. At Christie’s exceptional sale in London, Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Bear fetched a price of $ 12.2 million, the highest price ever paid for a drawing by the artist. It is one of less than eight surviving drawings by Leonardo still in private hands—outside of the British Royal Collection and the Devonshire Collections at Chatsworth—and measures 7 x 7 cm.
Banksy’s record-breaking Game Changer—sold at £16.8 million during an evening sale at Christie’s London in March—has a heartwarming story, one that speaks volumes for this generous artist. On 6 May 2020—during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic—a painting appeared at University Hospital Southampton. In crisp, linear detail, it showed a young boy playing with a selection of superhero dolls. In the painting, Batman and Spiderman lie discarded in a bin; instead, the child clutches a new idol. A masked, uniformed nurse soars to the rescue, her cape fluttering and arm outstretched towards the sky. The picture was accompanied by a note: ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.’