The Art Market Recap 2023

Dec 12, 2023 11:01PM

For those who keep a close eye on the art market, 2023 has been characterized by one word: correction. After a slew of blockbuster sales and record-breaking spending in 2022, many believed that 2023, with its persistent economic uncertainty, would be the year of relative retrenchment. And given the volatility of the market since the pandemic, many wondered if this year would represent a “new normal” for the art industry.

As the year comes to a close, it’s still hard to speak definitively about the state of the art market in 2023. What we can do, however, is analyze some of the key data points that sum up the year. After reviewing auction results as well as exclusive primary market data from Artsy, we’ve drawn up five key insights on the art market in 2023.

Predictably, the top end of the auction market generated a little more than half the sales value compared to 2022.

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In 2023, the most expensive artworks at auction paled in comparison to last year. The top 100 lots at auction this year totaled $2.4 billion, compared to $4.1 billion in 2022. This steep decline was evident from midway through the year, when combined sales across Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips saw an 18% decline for the first half of 2023, according to ArtTactic, through to the fall auction season in New York, which fell widely flat against expectations.

One can see the sharp disparity year over year by simply looking at the handful of most expensive works. This year yielded two artworks that sold for more than $100 million—Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (1932) and Gustav Klimt’s Dame mit Fächer (1917)—compared to six works in 2022. (Notably, just two artists appeared in the top 10 sales from both years: Klimt and Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

Some quick math further underlines the imbalance between this year and last: The top 13 artworks sold this year at auction total $800.7 million, less than the combined total for the top six artworks at auction last year ($809.6 million). And you could buy the 19 most expensive artworks from auctions in 2023 with the price paid for the top nine artworks from last year, with some change to spare.

The relative valuations for certain artists’ works year over year make for interesting comparisons, too. Of the top 500 artworks to sell at auction in 2023, 11 were by Andy Warhol. The combined sum of the sales of these artworks is $81.4 million, less than half the price of Warhol’s most expensive artwork sold in 2022, the record-breaking $195 million Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964).

It’s important to note that that iconic work (with its impressive provenance) became the most expensive 20th-century artwork to sell under the hammer and was the leading lot of a strong auction year on the whole. The rosy results of 2022 were powered at the top end by impressive artworks and sales from historical collections, including the Paul Allen sale at Christie’s, the biggest sale in auction history.

In 2023, the auction market continued to be weighted towards its very top end. The top 25 lots sold at auction this year have a combined value of more than those ranked 100–500. And this weight, unsurprisingly, leans heavily towards late artists: Just three of the top 20 works at auction this year were by living artists (Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, and Ed Ruscha); however, that’s an increase compared to 2022, when there was just one (Johns). And, as is typical of the market, you could purchase the top 500 lots by ultra-contemporary artists (born in 1975 or after) for the price of the top two lots at auction this year—and have a cool $10 million leftover.

Ultra-contemporary artists experienced the strongest surge in demand.

Based on Artsy data.

While works by established artists dominate the top prices on the secondary market, it’s the opposite story on the primary market. One key measure of primary-market demand that we review is the year-over-year growth in inquiries for artists’ works listed on Artsy.

As the above chart illustrates, younger artists are experiencing the strongest surges in demand. All but one of the top 20 artists to experience the strongest upsurge in demand in 2023 fall into the ultra-contemporary category (artists born in 1975 or after). However, many artists of this cohort are also experiencing strong results on the secondary market.

Chinese artist Yuan Fang, who tops the list, made a strong debut at auction this March, for Expanse (mask) (2022), which sold for $88,900; and has seen six more lots sell at auction this year, beating their mid-estimates by an average of 162%. Others such as Francesca Mollett, meanwhile, are already reaching six-figure prices under the hammer: The British artist’s painting Two Thistles (2021) sold for £254,000 ($307,975) in October.

The only artist that doesn’t fall into the ultra-contemporary category is German artist Janaina Tschäpe, who had her first solo show in Los Angeles, “Restless Moraine,” with Sean Kelly Gallery in March, as well as a show in London with the gallery in October.

Ultra-contemporary artists are also experiencing the strongest momentum in terms of popularity.

Based on Artsy data.

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Commensurate with commercial activity, ultra-contemporary artists are also seeing their profiles rise the sharpest.

The chart above, which identifies year-over-year growth in followers on Artsy, shows that all but one of the artists in the top 10 are ultra-contemporary. Notably, all 20 artists are painters.

At the top of the list is Bill Braun, an outlier as the only artist born before 1975, as well as an artist who’s gained the most traction via social media. A viral video of the artist’s work swept across TikTok and Instagram earlier this year as a narrator marveled over Braun’s mastery of trompe l’oeil.

The majority of the rest of the artists on this list are gaining attention at prominent and tastemaking galleries. New York–based artist Leonard Baby, for instance, has had a breakout year with shows in Los Angeles, London, and New York. Meanwhile, Amy Lincoln, also based in New York, participated in seven group shows this year, as well as an acclaimed solo show at Sperone Westwater.

Studio Lenca is a name that’s made waves on social media as well as in galleries: The Salvadoran, London-based artist has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram, and had solo shows this year at galleries from Tang Contemporary Art in Bangkok to Soho Revue in London, as well as a collaboration with the fashion brand egg.

Female ultra-contemporary artists are seeing more equity in the auction market than their forebears.

As we identified in our Women Artists Market Report earlier this year, women artists are severely underrepresented in top auction results. And marginal progress was made between 2022 and 2023: Just three of the top 50 most expensive sales at auction in 2023 were works by female artists (Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joan Mitchell), compared to zero last year. The most expensive work by a female artist sold at auction this year was Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1996), which fetched $32.8 million, a new auction record for the artist.

There is still clearly a long way to go before overall parity is achieved, but, as our report found, younger generations of female artists have better representation in the auction market when compared to their male peers. Twenty-one of the top 50 works by ultra-contemporary artists sold at auction this year were by female artists. And when the sample size is narrowed to artists born in or after 1985, female artists actually represent a majority, accounting for 34 of the top 50.

Avery Singer’s Untitled (2016) was the most expensive work by a female ultra-contemporary artist at auction this year, selling for $4.1 million. Several other ultra-contemporary women artists’ works set new records under the hammer this year, including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Emma Webster, Ilana Savdie, and Caroline Walker.

As the November auction season in New York illustrated, demand for works by female ultra-contemporary artists remained strong through the end of the year. Jadé Fadojutimi, for instance, broke her auction record twice over the fortnight when A Thistle Throb (2021) sold for $1.68 million at Sotheby’s, and then Quirk my mannerism (2021) sold for $1.9 million at Phillips less than a week later.

In terms of the ultra-contemporary category more broadly, Matthew Wong’s River at Dusk (2018) was the most expensive work at auction by an artist in the category, selling for $6.7 million. And with seven works in the top 50, Nicolas Party is the artist whose works appeared most frequently among the highest results.

Figuration is still the market favorite.

In 2023, increased enthusiasm for abstract art was a marked trend. In our report Art Industry Trends 2023, published this spring, the galleries we polled identified abstract paintings as most important to sales; and in Art Collector Insights 2023, published this fall, abstraction was also the most important genre to collectors.

But looking at the data, figurative artists and artworks are the most popular among buyers. From the list of the top 100 in-demand artists on Artsy, which shows the artists with the most growth in inquirers year over year, 61 are names that primarily work in figuration.

This also applies to the top end of the auction market, where figuration is still fetching the majority of the highest prices. At auction, 67 of the top 100 results at auction in 2023 are for figurative works, down slightly from 70 in 2022. This can be attributed to the trophy lots that achieve the top prices at auction, which tend to be from canonized artists, most of whom are known for figurative styles and some of whom predate modern abstract movements in art history. And it’s perhaps for that reason that the balance becomes more even when we restrict the list to the top 100 results from living artists—the number of abstract artworks sold at auction rises to 47.

That’s not to say abstract art isn’t being met with demand. At the November auctions in New York, it was clear that enthusiasm for the genre was strong, with several notable examples among the top performers across various auctions. Richard Diebenkorn’s Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965) became the most expensive abstract work of the year, selling for $46.4 million at Christie’s; twinned with Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955), which sold for the same price. Works by abstract luminaries including Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Arshile Gorky, Ad Reinhardt, Joan Snyder, and Hedda Sterne all set new auction records for the artists, too.

Arun Kakar

Arun Kakar is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.

Header & thumbnail artworks: Left: Jonas Wood, Green Pattern Rug, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and BravinLee Programs, New York. Right: Francesca Mollett, Scattered rest, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam.

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