Record-breaking art market. Works by Bansky, Picasso and Van Gogh at auction

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2:43 pm

19 November 2021

The art market is healthy and going strong. This is demonstrated by recent international exhibitions, such as Art Basel, Frieze London and Fiac in Paris, which have seen record turnouts and sales with works by Basquiat, Rauschenberg, De Chirico and Emilio Vedova sold for millions of dollars in the first days of the fair. This is one of the social and economic indicators used to evaluate a sector that constantly attracting visitors and seems to be experiencing a positive trend despite the restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recovery also confirmed by the ferment of international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s which, in a sort of “war” on the rise, are competing for the leadership of the sector by offering the international market works of art by artists such as Banksy, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Also the Italian market, after a physiological downturn due to the pandemic and lockdowns, is in clear recovery and is focusing on the digital sector.


The most recent was the Christie’s auction on 12 November, where among the key works was Van Gogh’s watercolour, “Meules de blé” (1888, Arles, Provence) one of the main lots of the catalogue “The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism,” setting a new world record for a work on paper by the Dutch artist, fetching approximately $36 million. The starting estimate was $20 million.

About a month earlier, Sotheby’s had impressed the market with 11 works by Pablo Picasso, including sculptures and paintings, which sold for $110 million. The lot included the well-known painting “Woman with Red-Orange Cap” from 1938, which grossed the highest price reaching $40.5 million.


If Van Gogh and Picasso’s 11 works have “shaken up” the market, it was the work of British artist Banksy that bolstered the love of art, setting a new personal record for the half-destroyed work, “Love is in the Bin”, sold by Sotheby’s for €22 million. In 2018, the painting had already appeared on the market under the name “Girl with Balloon” and sold for almost £1.1 million (€1.3 million). Thanks to the artist’s provocative stunt, the work was partially destroyed immediately after being sold. A paper shredder having been activated immediately after the purchase, damaging the painting and making it visible only in part. The self-destruction brought negative publicity to the auction house, guilty of not having noticed the internal device, but certainly did not discourage the buyer who saw in the damage a potential enhancement of the work, confirmed by the current market value: the price of the work since 2018 has risen almost 18 times.


According to data released by research initiative “Art: The value of the industry in Italy”, carried out by the Nomisma Observatory, the art industry in Italy generates a turnover of €1.46 billion, with an overall economic impact on the country of €3.78 billion in collateral activities, and employs around 36 thousand people in the entire production chain. On a European level, Italy represents 2% of the market in terms of value sales of works of art, a share that rose to 6% with the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU.

The research paper, the first of its kind, aims to provide a snapshot of the art market in Italy and its economic and employment impact on the country. In order to estimate the real value of the art industry in Italy, the study considers the entire community of players working in the supply chain. The main challenges facing our country in this sector are the simplification of regulations, the reduction of the training/labour gap and digitalisation. Overcoming these challenges means allowing Italy to regain its position as the world’s “factory of beauty”.

In 2019, the turnover of auction houses, galleries, antique dealers and art dealers reached €1.04 billion, plus €420 million from logistics, publications, insurance, trade fairs, education and restorers. For every euro of turnover recorded in the art market, according to the multiplier effect calculated by Nomisma researchers, an output of €2.60 is estimated, thus explaining the enormous overall economic impact on the country, amounting to €3.78 billion. Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the effect of accelerating certain processes already in evidence in the industry, such as specialisation and digitisation.


In recent years, again according to Nomisma data, there has been a reduction in the number of players in the market against an increase in overall turnover. In 2019, 1,667 art galleries operated in Italy, 610 fewer than in 2011. A similar situation for antique dealers, which from 1,890 in 2011 decreased to 1,593 in 2019. However, transactions increased 2% compared to 2011. The companies to stand out are the most virtuous and competitive, able to specialise and adapt to the needs of the national and international market. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has prompted companies to further implement digitisation.


The art market is healthy not only in Italy but outside national borders too: we are witnessing a strong recovery, also thanks to the auctions held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which stimulate collateral industries with comforting data to prove it. That the level of health is optimal is evident through the overall numbers achieved with the restart of in-person auctions.

Christie’s evening sale of 20th- and 21st-century art in London showed signs of a market that is returning to normal by bringing into the London auction house’s coffers a total of £64.6 million ($88.3 million) across 40 lots, up 18% on 2020 results.

Sotheby’s also performed well, with a total of £64.5 million ($88.8 million), driven by the sale of Banksy’s half-destroyed work and a number of Italian post-war masterpieces, including works by Lucio Fontana, Luciano Fabro, Enrico Castellani, Piero Manzoni and Alighiero Boetti, sold for millions.

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