No NFT, no comment – how digital art dominated 2021

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Surplus wealth, in-person activity, and the three letters N, F, and T propelled the bustling art market through the challenges of 2021.

The fact that the rich got richer thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the stock market gains that accompany it has been well documented. Existing billionaires and millionaires are now joined by newcomers from booming Asian economies, millennial entrepreneurs and a dominant breed of savvy crypto fintech investors happy to ride the ups and downs of this volatile arena. .

The impact on the art market was immediate. While 2020 was all about moving physical activity online, 2021 proved that such efforts increase the appetite for art and produce eager shoppers to keep spending once an in-person activity returns. Come on the hybrid, ahead of the November New York auction more than $ 2 billion in deals were completed in just one week, topped by the $ 676 million from just 35 lots of divorced couple Linda and Harry Macklowe .

Andy Warhol’s “Nine Marilyns” (1962) from the Macklowe collection was sold for $ 47.3 million at Sotheby’s in November © AFP via Getty Images

Like it or not, however, the 2021 art market history was sealed in March when Christie’s offered a digital work by previously little-known graphic designer Mike Winkelmann called Beeple. The work was a compilation of 5,000 fantastic digital images that had been shared online, including on Instagram under @beeple_crap. “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” was backed by a blockchain-secured non-fungible token to confer unique ownership and had no price estimate – basically because no one had a clue of its value. The staggering verdict was $ 69.3 million, paid out by crypto investor Vignesh Sundaresan, known as Metakovan, and it put Beeple in the same prize league as David Hockney and Jeff Koons.

Suddenly we all had to grapple with the language of new technology – hit, drop, cut – and, perhaps harder, trying to understand alternative systems of value and ownership. Important issues such as copyright, taxation and regulation remain in catch-up mode at the end of the year, but those of us who thought it was a fleeting work phenomenon at home were wrong.

Auction houses quickly co-opted the NFT phenomenon into their sales, while galleries ranging from megawatt Pace to Unit London launched their own NFT platforms. By the end of that year, Sotheby’s had its own metaverse, with a digital gallery in the virtual Voltaire Art District of Decentraland.

Etiolated bronze human head with an extremely long straight nose hangs in a bronze cage

‘Le Nez’ by Alberto Giacometti (1965) from the Macklowe collection reached $ 78.4 million in November © Sotheby’s

It sounds baffling, but such initiatives proved their worth at the November auction of the Macklowe collection of physical art, mostly from the 20th century. Here, the founder of cryptocurrency platform Tron, Justin Sun, who first bought an NFT artwork for $ 1,500 by digital artist Pak at Sotheby’s in April, quickly upped his game. He bought Alberto Giacometti’s “Le Nez” (1965) for $ 78.4 million, the fifth highest price paid at auction this year.

Overall, public auction figures for the three major houses, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, more than reversed their 2020 decline. Together they generated $ 12 billion in the year through 8 December, up 76% from 2020 and 20% above the equivalent total for 2019, according to analytics company Pi-eX. As New York City continued to have the bulk of record-breaking sales, Hong Kong has established itself as a mall: Phillips says its sales here nearly doubled from 2020, having already gained 25% in that year -the.

Elsewhere, art fairs have started to slowly return, with limited outings for events like Art Basel in Hong Kong and Frieze in New York in the first half of the year. These were followed by an intense season of events from the postponement of Art Basel in September to the release of the same fair in Miami in December. In London and Paris as well, face-to-face fairs have been vibrating with the renewed energy of professional networking and driving sales through a range of channels, now better suited to remote access.

Elegantly dressed seniors sit in front of fancy furniture in front of walls of paintings

Exhibitors at the Frieze Masters art fair in October © Justin Tallis / AFP via Getty Images

Frieze gave an injection of confidence by announcing the launch of a fair next year in Seoul, a city with an influx of galleries this year. But the specter of the Covid-19 pandemic was never far away. For its Swiss fair, Art Basel has set up a relief fund of $ 1.6 million for exhibitors; at the time of the Miami fair, the impending variant of Omicron was a reminder of the fragility of these international events during the ongoing pandemic.

Gallery closures throughout the year indicate a tense industry. Mainstays such as Gavin Brown and Metro Pictures in New York have left the scene, and in Cologne, Delmes & Zander, a champion of underrepresented artists, has closed after more than 30 years. “Times have changed”, simply note the founders of the gallery in their press release.

Artists have started to take matters into their own hands, not only through social media and NFTs that can take them directly to buyers, but through alternative middlemen, including a growing art agency scene. At the same time, auction houses are encroaching on all areas of the art trade: galleries seem cramped.

They have, however, benefited from lower available rents as traditional retailing moves more completely online. New gallery spaces ranging from short-term pop-ups to permanent installations have followed the money and galvanized commerce at resorts such as the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Aspen. Events that focus on the gallery space, including this year’s first London Galleries Weekend, find their place in a more decentralized world.

“Woman seated near a window (Marie-Thérèse)” by Pablo Picasso (1932) sold for $ 103.4 million with fees in May © Financial Times

What about art? The 20th century is still the biggest source of money and this year’s auction record came from the reliable Pablo Picasso, whose 1932 painting of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter sold for 103.4 million. dollars at Christie’s in May. On his heels, Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose place in the pantheon of art history is now cemented and whose worldwide popularity lends weight to the wider reassessment of street culture and artists of color. Despite the emergence of a more diverse art offer at exhibitions and fairs, there is still a lot to be done to correct the imbalances.

There was speculation about the works of a handful of contemporary artists as auction houses shifted their offerings to the most recent in art nouveau. The generally besieged Old Masters Market, however, managed to produce the third highest auction price of the year in January when a c1480 portrait of Sandro Botticelli sold at Sotheby’s for $ 92.2 million . And, in December, the Dutch government confirmed that it was ready to buy Rembrandt’s (1636) “The Standard Bearer” for the nation, for 165 million euros.

Such enthusiasm for traditional paintings may not be deep until 2022, but has made a refreshing old-guard contrast to the Metaverse. If the NFT craze at the Miami Fair in December is anything to say, however, next year we may not hear much else.

Video: Soaring NFT sales are reshaping the art market | FT Film

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