Contemporary art: the choice of medium



Which artistic media are most appreciated by Contemporary art collectors: painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking or drawing? Auctions results clearly reflect the major trends as well as the most sought-after and most profitable artistic categories for auction operators. At a time when photography has started to join the high-end of the art market and when sometimes even monumental installations are get sold through auctions, the market’s figures nevertheless translate a rather conventional hierarchy in the valuation of artistic media.

Works on canvas are indeed the most popular. Painting represents the largest segment of the Contemporary art market, representing 60% of its turnover from 40% of its transactions (our reference period is July 2013 through beginning of July 2014). The leading medium historically, “painting” (as a category) has maintained a stable market share over the past decade (with a peak at over 70% between 2006 and 2008). However what has changed is the final total, since “painting” now generates twelve times more auction turnover than 10 years ago. This impressive increase is mainly due to soaring prices at the market’s high-end, i.e. works that fetch over a million dollars. For example, the top 20 auctions results ever recorded in the Contemporary Paintings segment have all been recorded since 2007 and the frequency of auction records has further accelerated in the last two years (14 of the top 20 auction results date from 2013 and 2014) with amounts ranging from 12 to 43.5 million dollars for artists like Peter DOIG, Martin KIPPENBERGER, Christopher WOOL, ZENG Fanzhi and Jean-Michel BASQUIAT. The record of $43.5m held by Basquiat’s 1982 work Dustheads (Christie’s New York on May 15, 2013) is not however the best auction result ever recorded for a work of Contemporary art; that title goes to Jeff Koons’ monumental Ballon Dog (Orange) sculpture which fetched $52 million in November 2013. Koons is indeed the undisputed leader of the Contemporary Sculpture segment with all of the top seven results in this segment to his name, ahead of Damien HIRST, Takashi MURAKAMI and Maurizio CATTELAN.

Sculpture represents 14% of global turnover on the Contemporary art market, with a turnover total that has increased tenfold in ten years. However, despite the massive auction results occasionally generated by three-dimensional works, sculpture represents not the second but the third largest market share in the global Contemporary art market, behind drawing.

Drawing rush!
While global art auction turnovers from Contemporary painting and sculpture have increased 12 and 10 times respectively over the last decade, the turnover from Contemporary drawing has been multiplied by 37 over the same period! In terms of market share, drawing is second to painting with 19% of global Contemporary art auction turnover generated by drawings which represent 32% of the market’s total transactions.
The prices of drawings have benefited from the overall inflation on the Western art market, but also from the emergence of Contemporary Chinese ink drawing which is extremely popular with Chinese collectors. The Top 20 results in the history of the drawing market are also very recent. They have been driven by the Chinese market with the batch of drawings by LIN Xiao (born in 1955) that fetched $2.8 million in November 2006 in Beijing (Figures, Zhong Hong Xin International Auction Co., Ltd., Beijing). Since then, drawing – China’s traditional medium of choice – has been sitting comfortably at the high-end of the art market. Today, among the top 20 auction results for Contemporary drawing, 11 were fetched by Chinese artists and 2 by Western artists: Jean-Michel BASQUIAT and Julie MEHRETU.

Stabilization of the photography market
The market for Contemporary photography is not growing as quickly as those for other art media. However there are no signs of a meltdown and demand is still strong. If fact, recent months have seen a record volume of sales of Contemporary art photographs. We nevertheless note that after the spectacular rise in prices at the beginning of the millennium and the first seven-figure results in the segment, the market is in a period of “digestion”. A sign of its maturity is that the race for records has slowed and the auction operators are trying not to flood the market. Photography today represents 7% of Contemporary artworks worldwide (4% of total artworks sold) compared with 15% of the lots sold between 2003 and 2005. The undisputed leaders of the segment remain Andreas GURSKY, Richard PRINCE, Jeff WALL, Cindy SHERMAN, but also Jeff KOONS after the sale of his self-portrait in an illuminated box, The New Jeff Koons, on May 14, 2013 for $8.25m at Sotheby’s New York..

We should not underestimate the power of Contemporary printmaking. Amateur art collectors are particularly keen on this medium which is by nature more affordable than painting and drawing. One in ten Contemporary artworks sold today is a print; and while the segment’s turnover represents less than 1% of the global art market, it is seven times larger than it was 10 years ago (over the period July 2003 – June 2004). The most sought-after artists in this segment are, among many others, Ellen GALLAGHER, Cady NOLAND, Barbara KRUGER, Christopher WOOL, Nate LOWMAN and FANG Lijun.