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Art Market Watch
Sept. 24, 2008 

In the overheated depths of August, Art Market Watch had the bright idea to ask the expert number-crunchers over in Artnet’s powerful database sector to do a special summer 2008 data run. We asked them to compile a list of all the new auction records that had been set during the first half of the year, from Jan. 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008, ranking the numbers from the highest down to, say, $100,000. The list wouldn’t record all the high prices set during the six months, just the highs that were new auction records for the artists in question.

We had done this before, most recently in 2006, when we surveyed new auction records over a two-month period [see "Art Market Watch," Dec. 21, 2006]. It turned out pretty good. The market had recently formed an "eight figure club," which ten artists had joined, all selling artworks for new record prices of $10 million or more. Members included Francis Bacon ($15 million) and Norman Rockwell ($15.4 million) at the "low" end on up to Paul Gauguin ($40.3 million) and Gustav Klimt ($87.9 million).

This kind of list of new records, in and of itself, suggests an upward trajectory. Better yet, the crescendo of art prices gives the impression that the rise in value is practically unstoppable. It’s an inherently optimistic measure. For instance, Tom Sachs at $204,000, Jack Pierson at $352,00, Thomas Struth at $501,000, Daniel Richter at $543,000 -- the prices seem to go up and up. If a Sachs can go for $204,000 today, why not $352,000 tomorrow? And $501,000 the day after, and then $543,000? It’s an illusion, of course, though one to make artists (and art speculators) feel warm and fuzzy.

This time around, the data that was dumped on our digital desktop has proven to be rather more unwieldy. In the first half of 2008, new auction records were set for almost 1,000 artists. What a list! It goes on and on, and though it makes for fascinating study, it’s hardly a breezy read. At the top is the $86 million paid for Francis Bacon’s dramatic 1976 Triptych. At the floor of $100,000, hardly an inconsiderable sum, are a squad of artists that are largely of interest to specialists -- Françoise See, Ernst Samuel Geiger, Maria-Mela Muter, Cheong Soo Ping, Guo Tianxi, Anatoly Petritsky, Thomas Ring.

In between are all kinds of new highs for many of our favorite artists. To select just a few: Jeff Wall ($993,000), Xu Bing ($977,024), Malcolm Morley ($975,141), Jenny Holzer ($881,000), Franz West ($721,202), Sherrie Levine ($713,000), Mr ($645,776), Larry Bell ($623,400), Marc Quinn ($605,000), Wilhelm Sasnal ($457,676), Peter Halley ($457,000), Peter Blake ($418,000), Banks Violette ($409,762), Robert Longo ($406,722), Wangechi Mutu ($406,722), Joseph Kosuth ($337,000), Mark Bradford ($325,000), Gabriel Orozco ($308,000), Sterling Ruby ($260,000), AES+F ($238,614), Tracey Emin ($220,000), Ana Mendieta ($202,970), Daniel Spoerri ($199,491), Jack Goldstein ($187,000), Hernan Bas ($175,000), Michael Craig-Martin ($169,222), Mark Kostabi ($117,005), Sylvie Fleury ($115,050); Peter Voulkos ($108,000).

Overall, the sprawling list of almost 1,000 new records dramatically reflects the triumphant globalization of the art market. The fall of communism was the best thing that ever happened to the art business, opening up huge new markets of millionaire art collectors. The ranking is filled with "new" names from Canada, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia; sales devoted to Scottish art, Irish art, Scandinavian art and Greek art all had individual works being bought for more than $1 million. The booms in 19th-century American and Victorian art continue, as does the rapid growth of auctions held in Asia and the Mideast. The rise in value also delves into the second and third tiers of familiar art movements, and extends backwards in time as well, including early modernists and 19th-century pioneers.

But like we said, the list turned out to be long, way long. So a listing of those hundreds of artists who set new records below $1,000,000 is going to have to be saved for the future. Instead, here we give you a link to a PDF of the first 156 names -- all artists whose works sold for a new auction high in the first half of 2008.

One additional observation: this year’s list admits 22 members to the eight-figure club.

Finally, the sweeping global economic slowdown looms ever closer on the horizon, despite the frantic machinations on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. Will gloom finally embrace the buoyant art market? Perhaps. If so, let this list stand as a last hurrah!

-- Walter Robinson

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