Even the illustrious, ivory tower world of private art sales took a hard hit from 2020. And maybe it’s a little of a relief to see that even the unimaginably wealthy have felt the need to tighten their belts this year too.
The most expensive piece of art to sell at auction in 2020 was a Francis Bacon triptych which sold at Sotheby’s virtual auction in June for a mere $84.6 million. Sold by a private museum on Oslo, guaranteed by Sotheby’s to sell for at least $60 million, the painting Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus which depicts three abstract humanish shapes trapped in geometric shapes was purchased by an unidentified buyer in New York.
In a quirk of fate but not truly coincidence, we can compare this year’s most expensive directly to one from just a few years ago. Same artist, same auction house, but in 2013, the Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.4. At the time, it was the most expensive work ever to sell at auction, though it was eclipsed in 2017 by an actual Leonardo da Vinci and again in 2018 by a nude by painter Amedeo Modigliani.
Auction houses were were quick to move to online sales this year, already having been nearly there except for the traditional formal auction-house scenario. Houses like Sotheby’s have seen record numbers of first-time auction buyers, and new all-time highs in strange categories, like fossils ($31.9 million for a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in October) and shoes ($615,000 for a pair of Michael Jordan’s sneakers in August). In 2020, Sotheby’s alone sold over $5 billion in auctionable items. But fine art sales specifically are depressed, they report, with historical high rolling collectors keeping their wallets in their pockets and those holding high-value pieces less willing to risk selling during the current uncertainty.
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