YEAR IN REVIEW: 10 Stories That Moved the Art Market in 2012

Edward Munch's "The Scream" sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby's in May
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

In the auction world, 2012 was a banner year for trophy hunters, thanks to “The Scream,” Richter, and Rothko. But the occasionally staggering prices did little to the alleviate mounting anxieties: that a price bubble is swelling, that the Imp/Mod market grows sicklier still, and that China’s once inexhaustible buying power is starting to grow a bit drowsy. With a rocky year winding to a close, here’s a look back on 10 artworks that show the major market shifts of 2012. (To see some the artworks associated with our top market stories of the year, click on the slideshow.) 

1) Zhang Xiaogang is one of China’s top-earning contemporary artists, but he became an emblem of the country’s flagging market when a string of his works failed to sell at Sotheby’s Hong Kong during its generally bleak Contemporary Asian Art sale in October. “Brothers” was one of three works by the artist that was bought in, though others did find buyers.

2) In the biggest auction news of the year, Edvard Munch’s famous pastel “The Scream” sold at Sotheby's in May for $120 million — the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. (The titleholder had been Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green, Leave, and Bust,” which sold for $107 million in 2010.) The mystery buyer was the target of brief, but intense speculation before the Wall Street Journal revealed his identity as New York financier Leon Black.

3) This Edward Hopper painting became the most expensive artwork ever auctioned online in November when it sold for $9.6 million on Christie’s LIVE. The website already saw a 25-percent rise in bids in 2011, and we can expect to see more online activity in the future. This year, Christie’s has already added a number of online-only sales in new categories, such as wine, couture, and prints.

4) The $34-million price tag on Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild (809-4)” set a record for the highest auction price ever paid for a work by a living artist. It also outdid Richter’s previous record of $22 million. The painting’s provenance also may have added to its star power: The primary-pigment beauty was previously owned by guitarist Eric Clapton, who, as it happens, paid just over $3 million for it in 2001.

5) Pablo Picasso’s bronze “Coq” became one of the more painful failures at this fall’s dreary Impressionist and modern auctions when it failed to find a taker at Christie’s $10 million to $15 million estimate. After the sale, Judd Tully reported that Diana Picasso seemed confused: “It’s a magnificent work and was properly estimated.” Meanwhile, the house also bought in a $7-million Marc Chagall, a similarly priced Degas pastel, and a Bauhaus-influenced Lyonel Feininger painting.

6) Said to be one of Jackson Pollock’s final paintings, “Red, Black, & Silver” was pulled from a Phillips de Pury sale in September after a Vanity Fair article raised questions about its authenticity. Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, refused to authenticate the work, which was brought before the board by Pollock’s late mistress, Ruth Kligman. Phillips has tentative plans to reintroduce the work for sale early next year, pending “further study of the painting,” according to the executor of Kligman's estate.

7) Thirty-one-year-old trompe l’oeil artist Tauba Auerbach broke her auction record three times this year, first with a blocky black-and-white “Binary” painting at Phillips de Pury’s March contemporary art sale, which doubled its estimate at $86,500. Then, in November, one of her signature “Fold” paintings — a canvas spray-painted and stretched to look like wrinkled fabric — went for $290,500.

8) A chalk drawing by Raphael became the auction world's most expensive work on paper when it fetched $47.8 million at Sotheby’s London earlier this month. That narrowly beats out the previous record, another drawing by Raphael that went for $47.6 million in 2009. The Duke of Devonshire purchased the “Head of a Young Apostle,” a study for one of the figures in “The Transfiguration,” some 300 years ago, and it has remained in the Chatsworth collection ever since. 

9) The Andy Warhol “Jackie” print more than doubled its estimate, reaching $626,500 at Christie’s last month, but is even more significant because of the historic auction in which it took part. The sale was the first in a series of forthcoming online and private sales of inventory from the Andy Warhol Foundation, which moved to disband its authentication board and sell the work earlier this year in order to redirect the funds to its charitable missions.

10) One of Rothko’s most searing paintings must have burned a hole through the pocket of one Christie’s client, who ponied up nearly $87 million, double its pre-sale estimate, in May to purchase “Orange, Red, Yellow.” In addition to setting a record for Rothko, the sale also set a new record for postwar art, which had previously been held by Francis Bacon.