In 2021, the top auction houses reinvested their time and energy in evening sales, which had been sidelined as a result of the pandemic. They were successful, drawing back collectors across the globe to their marquee sales after a long hiatus. In the process, the houses generated records for various artists.
This past November alone, an Agnes Martin painting from the collection of Harry and Linda Macklowe sparked a bidding war, eventually selling for a record price of $17.7 million; Christie’s set a milestone for Gustave Caillebotte during the sale of the Texas oil magnate Edwin Cox; and other record prices were notched for Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Lee Bontecou and more. While this big sums tended to hog the spotlight, interesting activity was also taking place at smaller houses, most notably Swann, where the African American art department ended 2021 with a new high.
A survey of the year’s 10 defining auction records follows below.
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, 1480
This Sandro Botticelli portrait achieved the second-highest auction price for a work by an Old Master when it sold for $92.2 million, shooting past its estimate of $80 million. Coming to auction from the collection of the late New York real estate titan Sheldon Solow, who bought it in 1982 for £810,000 ($1.3 million), the painting shattered the Renaissance artist’s previous record of $10.4 million, minted by the sale of the Rockefeller Madonna (ca. 15th or 16th century) at Christie’s in 2013. The work went to a Russian buyer bidding through Sotheby’s London-based private client adviser Lilija Sitnika. The Botticelli record brought new life to the slumping Old Masters category, proving that old-world trophies like this one could still perform just as well as contemporary art at auction.
Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (Young Man at His Window), 1876
In November, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (Young Man at His Window), 1876, for a record-setting $53 million during an evening sale of Impressionist art. The result surpassed the French painter’s previous auction high of $22 million, set just two years ago at Christie’s. This work came from the holdings of Texas oil magnate Edwin Cox, who had held the painting for five decades before he died in 2020. Alongside works by Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas, the Caillebotte painting sold as part of a single-owner sale devoted to the Cox collection that brought in $332 million.
Peter Doig, Swamped, 1990
In November, during an evening sale at Christie’s, Peter Doig’s large-scale painting Swamped (1990) was bought for $39 million. Secured with a guarantee, it went to a bidder on the phone with Christie’s New York chairman Alex Rotter. Featuring a white boat floating amid pond weeds and tree stumps, the work had last come to auction in 2015, when the European collector who sold the work purchased it for $26 million. Swamped re-set Doig’s record, which had remained unchanged since 2017, when Rosedale (1991) sold at Phillips in New York. Auction houses had placed a greater emphasis on living artists this year, and the Doig sale was a sign that this renewed focus was paying off.
Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo, 1949
This self-portrait by Frida Kahlo that had been held in a private collection for 30 years sold for $34.9 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s in New York last month. The painting depicts the tearful artist with an image of her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, superimposed on her forehead, representing a third eye. The result quadrupled the artists’s previous auction record of $8 million, notched in 2016 when her 1939 painting Two Nudes in the Forest (The land itself) sold at Christie’s in New York. Diego y yo, which came to the sale with a guarantee, was bought by collector Eduardo F. Costantini. The price made it the most expensive work of Latin American art sold in a public venue and one of the most expensive works by a woman ever auctioned. Still, Kahlo’s record does not approach the one held by the priciest female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold for $44.4 million in 2014.
Agnes Martin, Untitled #44, 1974
Hitting the block alongside works by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock during Sotheby’s sale of the Harry and Linda Macklowe collection in November, Agnes Martin’s Untitled #44, a white-striped canvas from 1974, spurred one of the most suspenseful bidding spars of the evening. After five bidders competed for the work, it ultimately was won by a buyer on the phone with Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong for $17.7 million with premium. The result far surpassed Martin’s previous auction record of $10.6 million, set in 2016 at Christie’s in New York. Private collectors and museums are addressing historical gaps that have left women and artists of color under-represented in their holdings, and Martin’s market has been ascending since a Tate Modern retrospective held in 2015. In that way, this record evinces a market-wide trend toward elevating overlooked figures not only within museums but also on the auction block.
Amoako Boafo, Hands Up, 2018
During Christie’s Hong Kong contemporary art evening sale in December, Amoako Boafo’s Hands Up (2018), a painting of a young woman modeling sunglasses, drew multiple bidders from Hong Kong, New York, and London. After a protracted bidding period, it eventually sold to a buyer based in Asia for HKD 26.7 million ($3.4 million), 13 times its HKD 2 million estimate. The result set a new record for the Ghanaian-born painter, tripling his previous auction milestone of $1 million set in 2019. Frenzied bidding for Boafo and other young artists at the Hong Kong evening sales show an enduring appetite for emerging artists among buyers in Asia’s market hub.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Manias Become Science), 1981
Coming from a trove of Pictures Generation works sold by New Jersey–based neurosurgeon Abe Steinberger, Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Manias Become Science), 1981, was brought to auction during a Christie’s modern and contemporary art sale this November. Selling for $1.2 million amid a Kruger retrospective that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in October, the result outpaced Kruger’s previous record price of $902,500, set back in 2011 during the sale of Peter Norton’s collection at Christie’s. Kruger’s record came the same week that another pioneering female artist, Lee Bontecou, witnessed a new auction milestone. Together, these results served as a sobering reminder of how female artists’ historical impact can often far outweigh their market values, which frequently lag behind that of their male counterparts.
Elizabeth Catlett, Head, 1943
At New York’s Swann Galleries, during a sale of African American art, Elizabeth Catlett’s stone sculpture Head (1943) sold for $485,000, more than four times its $100,000 estimate. The limestone figure is one of only two known stone sculptures made by Catlett before she finally emigrated to Mexico in 1947, seeking more freedom to pursue her artistic career than what was allotted to Black women in the U.S. at the time. The price surpassed her previous auction milestone of $389,000, set at Swann in 2019, and could signify that Catlett’s market will expand more in the years to come.
Salman Toor, Girl with Driver, 2013
In a Phillips contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong held jointly with China-based Poly Auction this June, emerging artists drew the most attention among bidders. Salman Toor was represented by Girl with Driver (2013), which hammered for HKD 5.5 million ($890,000)—five times its estimate of HKD 1.2 million ($155,000). It surpassed Toor’s auction record of $867,000, set just the month before Sotheby’s, providing more proof that Toor is one of the fastest rising young artists in the auction world.
Frank Dobson, Female Torso, 1924
Sold for: $2.8 million
This 1924 sandstone sculpture of a female torso by the lesser-known modern British artist Frank Dobson was among the most surprising works in a Sotheby’s evening sale in London this March. The piece had once belonged to Alberto Giacometti and had remained in the same private collection for 30 years. It sold for a record of £2.04 million ($2.8 million), octupling times its £250,000 ($344,000) estimate. Naturally, that result surpassed Dobson’s previous record of £338,500 ($643,000), set in 2005. Bringing top works by under-appreciated artists to auction was a stated aim of the auction houses this year. Dobson’s case shows how such rarities long held from public view can perform in unpredictable ways.