Dec 17, 2022 - Economy

How Black American artists fare at auction

Total spent at auction on work by <span style="color:#ffbe31;"> Basquiat</span> and other Black American  <span style="color:#626262;">male</span> and <span style="color:#a0a1a1;">female</span> artists
Data: Artnet via Burns Halperin Report; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

The art world has always resembled a winner-takes-all game where a few superstars dominate an enormous field of also-ran artists. When it comes to the market for Black American artists, that dynamic is supercharged, per a huge new report on art-world inclusion from journalists Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns.

Why it matters: Recent years have seen dozens of records fall when it comes to prices for work by Black American artists, who represent about 8% of U.S. artists.

  • Overall, however, their presence in the market still lags far behind their presence in the broader art world — with one massive exception.

By the numbers: A key watershed moment was Sean "Diddy" Combs' $21.1 million acquisition of Past Times, by Kerry James Marshall, in 2018. That was followed earlier this year by The Sugar Shack, by Ernie Barnes, which was bought for $15.2 million — 76 times its high estimate.

  • The top-selling Black American female artist, Julie Mehretu, has an auction total of $65 million between 2008 and mid-2022, with her record price of $5.6 million being set at an auction in Hong Kong in 2019.
  • Among living Black American men, Mark Bradford is setting the pace, with a total of $194 million in auction sales over the same period. His top price of $12 million was garnered in London in 2018.

Between the lines: Once you get past the biggest names, there's often very little volume. Mehretu alone, for instance, accounted for 80% of the auction total for Black American women artists in 2016.

  • Every year, up to and including 2022, the auction total for Jean-Michel Basquiat is greater than the auction total for all other Black American artists combined.
  • Basquiat is the only artist in the global top 20 who isn't a white man; his auction total from 2008 to 2022 is $2.6 billion, and his top price, set in New York in 2017, is $110 million.

Driving the news: Museums are doing a marginally better job than buyers at auction houses when it comes to diversifying their collections. Black American artists accounted for 6.3% of exhibitions at 31 U.S. museums between 2008 and 2020, and 2.2% of all acquisitions.

  • The broad trends are upwards — between 2008 and 2021, for instance, the amount spent at auction on work by Black American women rose by 728%, vastly outpacing the market as a whole.
  • The inequality remains glaring, however: In the first half of 2022, Black American women were still just 0.3% of all auction sales.

The bottom line: A lot of the interest in Black artists is speculative: Buyers want to collect works before they soar in value. But speculative markets invariably work on boom-bust cycles, as can be seen in the two-year decline between 2018 and 2020, where auction sales of work by Black American artists fell by 49%.

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