Biggest auction sales of 2021: from Beeple's NFT record to the Macklowe Collection

The auction houses – Christie's, Sotheby's, Bonhams – hit high after high in a year in which the art world embraced new avenues

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The past year has been a bumper one for auctions. Christie’s reported total sales of $7.1 billion – up 54 per cent from 2020. Sotheby’s, likewise, netted $7.1bn in consolidated sales in 2021 – the highest total in the company’s 277-year history.

The stats say one thing: money was spent.

The stock market’s highs, interest from the tech world and East Asia, and non-fungible tokens (NFT) pushed auction prices higher than even the most bullish predictors expected – particularly as many feared the art bubble might finally burst at the beginning of the pandemic.

The year cleaved into two halves: new avenues such as NFTs and digital art, and the very old-school, divorce-fuelled sale of the Macklowe Collection at Sotheby’s, where the mainly abstract expressionist works achieved $676.1 million in a single, expensive night.

Behind the scenes, private sales activity also jumped. Christie’s totalled $1.7bn, with Sotheby’s taking $1.3bn.

Sotheby's staff take calls for off-site bids during an auction of The Macklowe Collection, at Sotheby's on November 15, 2021 in New York City. AFP

The question for 2022 and beyond will be whether NFTs continue to hold their appeal, or whether 20th-century modern work from the West – the most valuable auction category lot for lot – will maintain their pole position, abetted by Chinese interest. Despite the amount of attention given to NFTs, it’s useful to note they only took up 8 per cent of contemporary art sales at Christie’s.

As significant as NFTs are, so are the buyers. New collectors came out for the auction houses, in particular millennials, tech money and Asian buyers. Christie’s reports, for example, about a third of its buyers were newcomers to the auction house.

The strong new demand helped with some of the sticking points for auctions in 2020, which centred on supply. Faced with an uncertain selling environment, auction houses in the first year of the pandemic had trouble convincing collectors to consign works. This was not an issue for 2021, as auction houses demonstrated both that the demand was there, and that their online selling platforms were adequate substitutes for live auctions.

In fact, the switch to online has helped broaden their audiences. Online accessibility has made it easier for anyone to enter the once rare world of day and evening auctions, turning the houses into a form of high-end internet shopping.

This especially richly coloured and detailed canvas from Kadhim Hayder's 'The Epic of the Martyr (How He Wandered with the Heart of a Martyr)', from 1963, comes from the Madhloom collection and sold for $800,000, a record for the Iraqi artist. Photo: Bonhams

Another area welcoming new buyers is the Middle East market. According to Sotheby’s, in 2021, 42 per cent of bidders from the Mena region were new to the auction house.

The importance of UAE buyers has also increased: in 2021, Sotheby’s says, about 40 per cent of Middle East buyers and bidders were from the UAE. Over the past five years, this figure has risen by nearly 110 per cent. Some of this activity is because of the new museums, but it also reflects the broader uptake among individual collectors.

The Middle Eastern market had a strong year at auctions, driven mostly by factors unrelated to Covid-19 or the infusion of cash among high-net-worth people. Three collections of the high-water period of Iraqi Modernism came onto the market – the Madhloom, Makiya and Jawdat collections – at Bonhams and Christie's, securing a number of records for the period’s artists.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s have also increasingly been offering Middle Eastern works in their main evening and day sales as part of postwar and contemporary categories. By pitting them alongside Western artworks, ultimately this should have the effect of levelling out the price differential between the two categories, though there is still a long way to go on this front.

Here we review some of the most noteworthy sales from 2021:

Beeple, 'Everydays: The First 5000 Days', $69 million

Christie’s sale of Beeple’s NFT for $69m in March took the art world by surprise and sent it hurriedly googling NFTs, Ethereum and blockchain.

The price achieved was shocking, the fact that it was an NFT was more shocking, and even the buyer was mildly shocking. An Indian-born crypto investor from Canada, Vignesh Sundaresan, 33, signalled a move away from the traditional staid – that is, white and generationally wealthy – world of auction houses.

'Everydays - The First 5000 Days' by Beeple. Photo: Christie's

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Warrior', $42 million

In March, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior went for $42m. The high price is one notable factor here; another is the location: Hong Kong. With Asian buyers constituting a major new market – and Christie’s investing in new offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai – Basquiat showed the appetite for big Western names among Asian buyers, and the enduring popularity of the Art Brut painter.

Later, in May, at Christie’s New York, Basquiat again showed his pull, with his 1983 painting In This Case fetching $93.1m.

Pablo Picasso, 'Woman Sitting Near a Window (Marie-Therese)', $103.4 million

The only work to float above the $100m mark in 2021, Pablo Picasso’s portrait, originally titled Femme Assise Pres d'Une Fenetre in Spanish, of his lover Marie Therese sold for $103.4m at Christie’s New York. Picasso is a bankable name, and this is the fifth Picasso to have sold upwards of $100m – but the sale was still a further show of the money available for modern and contemporary art, even amid the pandemic’s economic uncertainty.

Employees pose for a photograph with "Femme Assise Pres d'Uune Fenetre (Marie-Therese)" by Pablo Picasso at Christie's gallery prior to the New York spring season of evening sales, in London, Britain, April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls   NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Kadhim Hayder, 'How He Wandered with the Heart of a Martyr', $794,190

In what has become a three-part sale, Bonhams is consigning major works from the Golden Age of Iraqi modernism, mostly coming from three collections coincidentally coming to market at once, all by architects active in Baghdad at the same time: Said Ali Madhloom, Nizar and Ellen Jawdat and Mohamed Makiya.

In the first sale, Kadhim Hayder’s How He Wandered with the Heart of a Martyr, No 6 in his Martyr’s Epic, achieved a world record for the artist when it sold for nearly $800,000, against its estimate of $100,000–150,000.

Etel Adnan, 'Untitled', $470,000

Offered in Sotheby’s main evening sale to coincide with Frieze Week in October, Etel Adnan’s weighty and almost disjointed landscape from circa 1973 likewise soared above its estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 to achieve around $470,000 – more than doubling the previous record for the Lebanese-born artist and poet, who died the following month.

American-Lebanese artist and writer Etel Adnan at home in her studio workshop in 2015 in Paris. Getty Images

Banksy, 'Love Is in the Bin', $25.4 million

Another bankable artist has proven to be Banksy, the street artist who has found the fine line between critical and popular acclaim and inches forward along it, with each new stunt somehow pleasing both sides. In 2018, he delighted fans by his artwork Girl with Balloon automatically shredding itself after being sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4m – a record for the artist at the time.

This October, he returned to Sotheby’s with the same (half-shredded) work, now titled Love Is In the Bin. It promptly sold for a new artist’s record of $25.4m going to an Asian collector.

Jewad Selim, 'Good and Evil, An Abstraction', $1.1 million

Bonhams' second Baghdadiyat sale in November brought records for Jewad Selim, with his Good and Evil, An Abstraction, a prototype for a monument to be built on the Red Crescent headquarters in Baghdad. The mural was never built, but it anticipates his design for the now legendary Freedom Monument on Tahrir Square in Cairo. The work went for $1.1m – again, a record for the artist.

Jewad Selim's 'Good and Evil, An Abstraction' (1951) was a study for a mural for the headquarters of the Iraqi Red Crescent. Photo: Bonhams

Macklowe Collection, $676.1 million

The auction year has ended on an extraordinary high, with the sale of the Macklowe Collection by Sotheby’s New York. Works by Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Philip Guston helped the collection built up by the New York couple – who have since split acrimoniously – reach $676.1m.

And this was only the first tranche of the collection. There is more to come, making 2022 look like it will continue to be a high for auction houses.

Updated: December 22, 2021, 10:51 AM