Around the Auction World: April 2021

James Ardis
Published on
Images from around the auction world this month. Photo credit from left to right: University of Aberdeen, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Collage by Pranit Dubey (Auction Daily).
Images from around the auction world this month. Photo credit from left to right: University of Aberdeen, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Collage by Pranit Dubey (Auction Daily).

A month after Beeple and Christie’s record-breaking sale, the auction industry may now have a more realistic understanding of where digital art fits into the market long-term. Sotheby’s and Phillips both hosted successful NFT sales this month, but neither could match the numbers set by their shared competitor. 

Other headlines around the auction world this month also felt like a reversion to the mean. For example, many of the major players spent April preparing for their contemporary and 20th-century art auctions later in the spring, with familiar names like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat headlining the catalogs.

But elsewhere, it was far from business as usual, including a groundswell of support behind repatriating the Benin Bronzes and other artworks looted from the African continent. 

Auction Daily takes a look back at the major headlines around the auction world for April 2021.

Industry Trends

Reports on the state of the market showed strong auction results, particularly out of China, and hope for a return to in-person events. Meanwhile, the excitement behind NFTs showed signs of waning.

Despite diminishing returns industry-wide, Sotheby’s managed to net USD 17 million in its first NFT sale. Little is known about the digital artist at the center of this success, Pak.

Open Editions by Pak. Image from Sotheby’s.
Open Editions by Pak. Image from Sotheby’s.

Exploring the market viability of NFTs won’t stop Christie’s nor Sotheby’s from offering more usual fare. Christie’s spent much of this month building excitement for a painting of Picasso’s muse. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s estimates a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting will sell for $35 million to $50 million next month. 

Recently, there’s been increased pressure throughout the West to repatriate the Benin Bronzes and other works from Africa. While museums are at the center of the discussion, auction houses have also profited from these pieces and will remain part of the conversation.

The auction industry is in the middle of a years-long process to address its lack of diversity. Earlier this month, Contemporary African & Diaspora art expert Freda Isingoma discussed how the industry could drive long-term change.

Auction Highlights

Gold Band by El Anatsui. Image from Phillips.
Gold Band by El Anatsui. Image from Phillips.

Michah Dowbak, known in the art community as Mad Dog Jones, achieved the highest auction price ($4.1 million) for a living Canadian artist with his NFT REPLICATOR. It was also a strong debut into NFTs for the auction house, Phillips. 

In the midst of spirited bidding for REPLICATOR, Phillips also offered a print by El Anatsui. The Ghanaian artist is well-known for his intricate bottle cap designs.

Those nostalgic for the pre-digital days had the opportunity to bid on three art pieces by John Alvin designed for the VHS re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s Photographs department commemorated its 50th anniversary with a 50-lot sale exploring the history of the medium.

Harlequin Dress by Irving Penn. Image from Sotheby’s.
Harlequin Dress by Irving Penn. Image from Sotheby’s.

Quote of the Month 

“The fact that over 90% of Sub-Saharan artifacts sit outside of the continent (according to recent studies), and their significance and meaning is not adequately understood and interpreted within the spaces they reside [should] be a deep concern for everyone.”

Freda Isingoma on looted African artifacts

More Highlights From the Month

The Bold and Vibrant Art of the Scottish Colourists 

Artist to Know: Dia Azzawi

Masters on the Market: Alma Thomas

Never-Before-Seen Yayoi Kusama Artworks from Dr. Hirose’s Private Collection Come to Auction 

Christie’s Will Auction Sanyu’s Still Life for $11M in Upcoming Hong Kong Sale