2021 Auction Review | Top 10 most expensive artworks fetch US$786.9 million (Part 2)

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 second one discusses lots one to five; while the first, about lots six to ten, can be accessed here

1 | Pablo Picasso | Femme assise pres d’une fenetre (Marie-Therese), Oil on canvas

Created in 1932

146 x 114 cm

Auction House: Christie’s New York

Auction Date: 13 May 2021

Sold: US$103,410,000

In 2013, this portrait by Picasso was sold for around US$44.7 million dollars at Sotheby's London. It was kept in private hands until this year's Spring Auctions at Christie's New York.

After more than 30 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$90 million dollars. The winning bid was by Christie’s Head of Evening Sale in the 20th Century Art Department, Vanessa Fusco, for her client with paddle number 1904. In the end, the painting was sold at US$103.4 million dollars with buyer’s premium – a 131 per cent increase from its last sale in 2013.

Vanessa Fusco with the winning bid 

Created in 1932, this painting was produced five years after Picasso’s encounter with Marie-Therese – his lover and muse from circa 1927 to 1935. Since then, Marie-Therese’s image began making more constant presence in the painter’s oeuvre – initially concealed to eventually more euphoric takes like in the present work.

The artist’s young lover is portrayed in a statuesque form and her profile is given a prominent sculptural quality. Those are contrasted with a sensuous and soft body, while her fiery red torso is juxtaposed with the canvas’ lilac and sky-blue tones.

Marie-Therese can be considered as Picasso's golden muse 

Marie Therese's profile is given a prominent sculptural quality in Picasso's painting

2 | Jean-Michel Basquiat | In This Case, Acrylic and oil stick on canvas

Created in 1983

197.8 x 187.3 cm

Auction House: Christie’s New York

Auction Date: 11 May 2021

Sold: US$93,105,000

Seller: According to sources, Valentino’s co-founder Giancarlo Giammetti 

This canvas last went on the auction block in a 2002 Sotheby’s sale for around US$1 million dollars, and later changed hands privately. The consigner was reportedly co-founder of Italian fashion label, Valetino, Giancarlo Giammetti. He acquired the piece in 2007. 

In 2021, Basquiat’s In This Case painting was sold at US$93.1 million dollars. In nearly 20 years, the painting’s value increased by more than 90 times, and became Basquiat’s second most expensive artwork.

Maezawa paid US$110.5 million dollars for Basquiat's skull-depicting painting

In 2017, Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, paid US$110.5 million dollars for Basquiat’s skull-depicting painting, Untitled (1982). This record-breaking sale became the most expensive American work ever sold at auction.

The iconic imagery of Basquiat’s skulls can be tracked back to when the artist was six – when he got into a car accident and was hospitalised. His mother bought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, a medical textbook. The book’s illustrations left a lasting influence on the young Basquiat ever since, and the skull motif is among some of his most sought-after works in the market.

3 | Sandro Botticelli | Young Man Holding a Roundel, Tempera on poplar panel

Created in circa 1480

58.4 x 39.4 cm

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Auction Date: 11 May 2021

Sold: US$92,184,000

Seller: According to sources, American real estate tycoon, Sheldon Solow

Buyer: According to sources, a Russian collector 

Italian Renaissance Master, Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel was crowned as the second most expensive Old Master artwork to sell at auction. It fetched US$92.2 million dollars with buyer’s premium – behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. It also set a record-high for the artist, whose previous record of US$10.4 million dollars set by the sale of the Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist (circa 15th-16th century) at Christie’s New York in 2013. The work went to a Russian buyer bidding through Sotheby’s London Senior Client Liaison, Russia Desk, Lilija Sitnika.

The painting was one of the few portraits by Botticelli left in private hands. It was consigned by American real estate tycoon, Sheldon Solow, who bought the work for £818,000 pounds in 1982 (around US$1.3 million dollars back then). The new record means the painting’s value was increased by 70 times in nearly 40 years.

The painting's seller was reportedly American real estate tycoon, Sheldon Solow 

He died at age 92 in November 2020 – two months after Sotheby's announcement that the auction house would be presenting the work in the sale.

Created in the 15th century, the painting was one of three portraits by Botticelli. It portrays a young man presenting a roundel of a bearded saint – which is also one of the painting’s most striking features. Though the identity of the young man portrayed is not known, the appreciation of the highly prized work comes from its ability to transcend time. 

It is a testament to the ideology and depiction of beauty during the Renaissance period in Rome (mid-15th to mid-16th centuries). The Florentine Master was also instrumental in advancing portraiture to a more modern form.

Through the painter’s pioneering vision in the genre, the portrait demonstrates a crisp composition and carefully incised lines. The composition is comparable to another portrait by the artist, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (1474-1475).

Botticelli's Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1480)

Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (1474-1475) by Sandro Botticelli | Collection of Uffizi Galleries in Tuscany, Italy

4 | Mark Rothko | No. 7, Oil on canvas

Created in 1951

240.7 x 138.7 cm

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Auction Date: 15 November 2021  

Sold: US$82,468,500

Seller: Macklowe Collection

Buyer: According to sources, an Asian collector

Harry Macklowe is an American real estate tycoon with a net worth of US$2 billion dollars.

He bought General Motors Building for a record US$1.4 billion dollars in 2003. When Harry sold the skyscraper in 2008, its value doubled to US$2.9 billion dollars. It became the most expensive office building in the United States.

The Collection of Harry and former wife, Linda Burg, were put up for auction, because the two parties failed to agree on the valuation of most of the art collection in the divorce case.

Harry and Linda

Sotheby's secured 65 artworks in the Macklowe Collection. Earlier in November, 35 artworks were sold at US$676 million dollars, which became the most expensive single collector auction in history.

Mark Rothko’s No. 7 painting performed the most brilliantly, which sold for US$82.4 million dollars with buyer's premium.

The winning bid was by Sotheby's Chairman of Asia, Patti Wong, for her client with paddle number 9. Although the international auction house did not disclose any buyer information, Wong was responsible for the telephone bidding. This means that the bidder was most likely an Asian collector.

Created in 1951, No. 7 features bold blocks of green, lavender and burnt orange. It dates to the critical moment in the early 1950s during which Rothko developed his signature style of abstraction and mature mode of artistic expression. Composed of three luminous and distinct bands of colour, this painting’s vibrant colouration and atmospheric depth reflect the mastery of Rothko’s transformative period.

Mark Rothko's No. 7 painting was competed between Yonnie Fu (left) and Patti Wong (right)

5 | Alberto Giacometti | Le Nez, Bronze, steel and iron

Created in 1965

81.3 x 72.4 x 38 cm

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Auction Date: 15 November 2021 

Sold: US$78,396,000

Seller: Macklowe Collection

Buyer: Founder of cryptocurrency platform, TRON, Justin Sun

Giacometti’s Le Nez (The Nose) is another valuable artwork from the Macklowe Collection. It was sold at US$78.3 million dollars, with buyer’s premium.

Justin Sun, the founder of virtual currency TRON, announced on social media that he was the new owner of the sculpture and became a hot topic in the art world.

Sun was born in Xining, northwest China in 1990. He graduated from Peking University and then went to the University of Pennsylvania to study for a master’s degree. He once worked at Wall Street and Silicon Valley. In 2013, he joined Ripple Labs, a blockchain payment company, as the chief representative and advisor of China.

In 2014, he founded the mobile social app, Peiwo, and later developed the cryptocurrency platform called TRON. Sun also acquired BitTorrent for approximately US$126 million dollars. From 2015 to 2017, he was selected as one of the 30 Under 30 leaders by Forbes.

Justin Sun

Giacometti’s Le Nez is an example of how the Swiss-Italian sculptor questioned human conditions and existentialism. This sculpture is suspended within a cage, evoking a sense of fragility, aggression and tension.

The sculpture was originally conceived in 1947, which marked a year of crucial importance for Giacometti, and many of his most celebrated creations such as L’Homme qui marche, L’Homme au doigt and Le Nez date from that period.

The sculptor's artwork, L'Homme au doigt (Pointing Man, 1947), was auctioned for US$141.3 million dollars at Christie's New York in 2015. It was the highest price for any sculpture at auction.

Giacometti's L'Homme au doigt (Pointing Man, 1947