2021 Auction Review | Top 10 most expensive artworks fetch US$786.9 million (Part 1)

This year's art auction market rebounded from 2020's performance, despite being hit by the pandemic for the second consecutive year. 

In 2021, the 10 most expensive lots amassed US$786.9 million dollars, which surpassed US$452.9 million dollars set in 2020, and US$660.2 million dollars in 2019.

The first eight lots in this year's list were sold by Christie's (one, two, six, eight) and Sotheby's (three, four, five, and seven) – all of which were sold in New York. The remaining two were sold at Chinese auction house, Beijing Poly; and at a charity auction in Dubai.

Among 10 lots, seven were Western Modern and Contemporary Art. The remaining three included a painting by an Italian Old Master, a Chinese classical painting and a NFT artwork.

This article is divided into two parts – this first one discusses lots six to ten; while the second about lots one to five, can be accessed here

6 | Vincent van Gogh | Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cypres, Oil on canvas

Created in 1889

45.5 x 60.3 cm

Auction House: Christie’s New York

Auction Date: 11 November 2021

Sold: US$71,350,000

Seller: American collector, Edwin L. Cox

Buyer: According to sources, co-founder of an art consulting company, Hugo Nathan

In November 2020, the famous American collector Edwin Lochridge Cox passed away aged 99. He was a key American businessman in the Texan oil and gas industry. 

One of the reasons for the great reception to this lot is the appeal of Cox’s Collection. He collected Impressionist and Modern Art masterpieces by artists such as Monet, Cezanne and van Gogh since the 1970s. 

Edwin L. Cox

Created in October 1889, van Gogh combined his favourite Provencal motifs and captured the characteristics of the artist’s mature style that emerged at Saint-Remy. During the Dutch artist’s yearlong stay in Saint-Remy, his works reached a climax of expression where he depicted the world around him with great intensity.

Through spells of mental illness, van Gogh had periods of abundant and creative production. These circular strokes and snaking, impastoed lines of the olive trees came to dominate van Gogh’s work in Saint-Remy.

7 | Claude Monet | Le Bassin aux nympheas, Oil on canvas   

Created in 1917-1919

100 x 200 cm

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Auction Date: 12 May 2021

Sold: US$70,353,000

Buyer: American collector

The peak of a lifetime’s study of nature, Monet’s Nympheas series are among the most celebrated works of the Impressionist era.

Painted between 1917 and 1919, Le Bassin aux nympheas comes from the body of late works which propelled the artist toward the realm of abstraction. They later inspired generations of painters to follow.

Monet’s beloved water gardens at Giverny, northwest of Paris, are featured in the present work and served as the inspiration for the iconic series which defined the artist’s last 20 years. Begun in the 1890s with his early Japanese Bridge scenes and carried throughout the Grandes Decorations, Monet’s Nympheas series illustrates manner of light and season; but more importantly, the artistic exploration of a singular motif.

Monet was inspired by his Giverny Gardens during his later years

The painting's top central section 

The painting's bottom central section 

8 | Beeple | Everydays: The First 5000 Days, JGP NFT  

Minted on 16 February 2021

21,069 x 21,069 pixels

Auction House: Christie’s New York

Auction Date: 11 March 2021

Sold: US$69,346,250

Buyer: Indian cryptocurrency investor, Vignesh Sundaresan (known as MetaKovan)

On 11 March marked an important date in the digital art world.

Christie's held a single lot sale for digital art and accepted cryptocurrency payments from buyers for the first time. Beeple’s JPG work, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, was sold at US$69.3 million dollars. The American digital artist became the third most valuable living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Despite initial rumours of Justin Sun acquiring the digital artwork, the buyer was Vignesh Sundaresan. He is the founder of cryptocurrency investment fund, Metapurse.

Beeple's artwork is a collage made up of 5,000 digital images  including this one of an astronaut

Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) became the third most expensive living artist 

9 | Xu Yang | Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu, Handscroll, ink and colour on paper

Created in Qing dynasty (1644-1911)  

43 x 1865 cm

Auction House: Christie’s New York

Auction Date: 6 June 2021

Sold: RMB 414,000,000 (around US$64.7 million)

The handscroll fetched RMB 414 million (around US$64.7 million dollars) – more than triple when it was last sold at another Beijing auction in 2009 for RMB 134 million (around US$19.7 million dollars).

In 2009, it was the then record for a Chinese classical painting. It was acquired by Chinese billionaire and mega-collector Liu Yiqian, founder of Long Museum in Shanghai, where the handscroll was exhibited.

After 12 years, it is now the third most expensive Chinese classical painting in auction history too – behind Wu Bin’s Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (painted in circa 1610), and Huang Tingjian’s Di Zhu Ming from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127).

With military expansion and suppression of regional unrest in mind, Chinese Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795) embarked upon 10 military campaigns known as the Ten Great Campaigns. They spanned across regions such as Tibet, Taiwan, Myanmar and Vietnam during the mid- to late-18th century.

Prints and paintings were often commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor after each battle, to glorify the military and political success, as well as to exemplify the imperial state power of the court.

Closer look at Xu Yang’s Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu

10 | Sacha Jafri | Journey of Humanity, Paint on canvas

Created in 2020

17,176 square feet (equivalent to nearly four basketball courts)

Dubai Charity Auction (Co-organised by the Dubai Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence, Dubai Cares and Atlantis, The Palm Hotel in Dubai)

Auction Date: 24 March 2021

Sold: AED 227,757,000 (around US$62 million)

Buyer: French cryptocurrency entrepreneur, Andre Abdoune

Proceeds were donated to: Dubai Cares, UNICEF, UNESCO and The Global Gift Foundation

The tenth most expensive lot was sold at a charity auction in Dubai, which was jointly organised by the local government, charity organisations and a resort hotel.

This painting spanning more than 17,000 square feet – equivalent of nearly four standard basketball courts – was certified by the Guinness World Records as the world's largest canvas work. It was sold at around AED 227.7 million (around US$62 million dollars), and was bought by Andre Abdoune, a French cryptocurrency entrepreneur. All proceeds from the auction were donated to organisations, such as UNESCO and the UNICEF for programmes related to children’s education, health care, sanitation and digital connectivity.

The British-Indian artist, Sacha Jafri, who painted this work became the fourth most expensive living artist in the world – behind Jeff Koons, David Hockney and Beeple.

Sacha Jafri