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How do auction houses define trends in the art world?

· Art Market

International auction houses are the epicenter of art world trends. It is at auctions that art dealers and collectors alike are able to identify trending artists through financial returns. Although many art enthusiasts wish to cast their gaze upon the biggest art events of the year, such as art fairs and biennials, to find the latest trends, it is truly auctions that provide the greatest example of what is hot on the market. Why? Because the turnaround for an art auction is much faster than the organization and execution of any art exposition. It is a fast-paced international market that has its grip on the art world.

Supporting emerging artists

Evening sale, "The Now," 2022 © Sotheby's

There is an array of star auction houses, among them include, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Bonhams. These auction houses support a wide array of artistic movements throughout their busy auction seasons, often dedicating auctions to a single genre, artist, or style. Beyond their curated auctions of historical artworks, many of the key auction players spread their influence, uplifting and highlighting particular trends in the art market through their selection of lots.

Over the last few years, there has been a special emphasis on young artists. At Sotheby’s, “The Now,” is an evening auction that supports trending processes and styles of art. At Phillips, there is the “New Now” auction which has been organized to uplift the careers of emerging artists. These are just two examples of A-level auction houses supporting emerging artists and trends, while also influencing the future of the global market.

Thus, the auction houses allow young talents to be consecrated and to increase their value sharply, which has a consequence on the global market. For example, in April 2021, Claire Tabouret became the most expensive living French artist on the art market after the sale of her work The Last Day by Christie's London, which was close to the million mark! (source: La Gazette Drouot)

The global impact on the art world

An auction house is certainly an integral selling channel for the art market. Not only do they harness global purchasing power, but they also influence a widespread ripple effect of awareness throughout the international art scene. An artist, movement, or sub-genre of art that sells well, or sells above predicted price at auction, gains global recognition. This is the case for NFTs! After the record-breaking sale of Beeple's work for nearly $70 million in 2021, the medium has taken over the entire art market. Collectors, art dealers, and critics alike, have all found interest in this recent phenomenon, after the sale of the artwork at Christie's.

Although collectors are clearly able to seek art world information from a multitude of sources, many, if not all, continue to seek expertise and advice from auction houses, who have the numbers and success to encourage dealers and collectors in certain directions.

Successful sales encourage a domino effect

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997 © Sotheby’s

The art world is overflowing with styles and competing trends. This is perhaps why many art enthusiasts turn to what they know is successful: auctions and the trends that they set. Over the last few years there has been an emphasis on women artists, contemporary surrealism, Black painters (figurative and abstract), emerging artists, and NFTs throughout the auction sector.

Central members of these movements that sold at auction, typically sold over the estimated price, sometimes over 100%, or even higher. For example, legendary figurative artist Kerry James Marshall had a strong sale at Sotheby’s 2018 contemporary art evening sale. His painting, Past Times (1997), sold for $21.1 million, 111% over the auction house’s estimated closing price. The sale of this painting was not only record breaking but defined and inspired a clear shift in the art market. To this day, it remains the most expensive work of art by a living Black American artist ever sold at an auction.

Although Marshall was already a successful artist in the contemporary art world before the sale of Past Times, this historic moment encouraged international recognition for Black figurative artists, affecting the curation and exhibitions of major galleries, museums, and fairs, internationally (Kerry James Marshall - Mastry at MOCA Los Angeles and the Met Breuer, Noah Davis at David Zwirner Gallery, etc) . Beyond this, sales such as this one, motivate art dealers and collectors to seek out other movements and artists that can mirror this success.

Auction houses’ strategies

As expressed in an interview with a representative from Phillips (published 21 May, 2022), many auction houses pinpoint the success of their auctions to their experts’ intuition and their talent for targeting the evolving trends of the contemporary art world. This is done through a myriad of ways that target the engagement of their audience. Auction houses have teams devoted to digital strategies that allocate the best movements and artists to highlight for upcoming sales. This typically will reflect client interests as well as cultural material available at the time.

A blend of new and old

Beeple, Everydays: the First 5000 Days, 2021 © Christie’s

Not only are auction houses interested in diffusing the work of rising stars, they also enjoy curating sales that are a perfect blend of master artists and up-and-coming artists. It is thanks to this plurality of talents represented that they are able to effectively define market trends. In doing this, they excite art world players to follow and stay up-to-date on the art world’s leading artists and movements, solidifying names in the history books. Learn more about the art trends of 2022 in our article!

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