Art Fairs, Comic Books, & Cryptocurrency Dominate 2021’s Second Quarter

Liz Catalano
Published on

Halfway through 2021, the art market shows signs of revival. Increased vaccination rates have allowed in-person events to resume, and the auction industry has started to recover its losses. 2021’s second quarter also revealed enduring and new trends in the art world, from comic books to cryptocurrency. Auction Daily investigates the state of the market in June of 2021.

Visitors at Kamel Mennour’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong. Image from Art Basel.
Visitors at Kamel Mennour’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong. Image from Art Basel.

Second Quarter Art Market Trends

Major auction houses pushed ahead with modern and contemporary art sales in 2021’s second quarter. These were often spread across multiple days and locations, offering bidders a dizzying international experience. The sales yielded particularly strong results for young and emerging artists. 

Vintage comic books have seen significant growth over the last few months. This typically stable collecting category skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic. Heritage Auctions recently netted USD 22.4 million in its June comics auction, nearly $6 million above its previous record. Certain pre-pandemic factors were already pushing the category forward, including better grading and certification systems. Staying at home gave both serious and casual bidders the time to build their collections.

Phone bidders at Christie’s Hong Kong. Image from Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo.
Phone bidders at Christie’s Hong Kong. Image from Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo.

Market Recovery and Expansion

In 2021’s second quarter, auction houses across the industry moved to recover financial losses incurred during the pandemic. The largest auction houses took steps into fresh markets, seeking new clients and opportunities. 

Phillips and Poly Auction first joined hands in late 2020. Several months later, in early June of 2021, the companies offered a dual-location contemporary art event over two days. The white-glove auctions yielded $90.4 million and set new auction records for many rising artists. These results support Phillips’ long-term expansion into Asian markets, especially in Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Sotheby’s also announced plans for international development. The company will offer auctions in a Cologne villa starting in September, chasing a rapidly growing German market. The upcoming events will offer luxury items and fine art to northern European collectors. Sotheby’s will encounter competition from domestic auction houses with an established presence. However, the pandemic has disproportionately affected these small European companies, many of which already face a shrinking slice of global art sales.

Visitors at Frieze New York 2021. Image by Casey Kelbaugh.
Visitors at Frieze New York 2021. Image by Casey Kelbaugh.

Frieze, Art Basel, and Shenzhen Fairs 

Hosting in-person art fairs seemed increasingly viable during 2021’s second quarter. Frieze New York 2021 finished with apparent success despite ongoing concerns about COVID-19. Several dealers sold out their booths within the first day, and the fair greeted visitors from around the world. Frieze also demonstrated the ongoing risks of in-person events, particularly as dinners and after-parties failed to meet strict safety guidelines. 

Art Basel Hong Kong ran this quarter as well. It was much smaller than usual, with only 104 exhibitors and a limited number of attendees. That did not stop any record-setting sales. Lévy Gorvy gallery sold Joan Mitchell’s 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock painting for approximately $20 million, setting the highest public price for the artist. Art Basel offered its usual Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) and live-streamed events for those who could not participate in person. The fair’s careful management and resulting success soothed fears over Art Basel’s Swiss edition, which is slated for mid-September. 

As parts of the world open back up, other art fairs have been announced. Bao Yifeng, David Chau, and Kylie Ying are planning a new contemporary art and design fair in Shenzhen, China. The team previously launched the Art021 fair in Shanghai and the JingArt fair in Beijing. They are now moving to fill the gaps in China’s contemporary art market. While the new fair must juggle mandatory quarantines, travel restrictions, and other complications, its announcement does signal the accelerating return of a regular art market.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984. Image from Christie’s.
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984. Image from Christie’s.

The Future of Cryptocurrency and NFTs

NFTs remained a buzzword in the art market during 2021’s second quarter. Ever since Christie’s sold Beeple’s EVERYDAYS – The First 5000 Days for $69 million in March, the industry has scrambled to keep up with the digital art world. Sotheby’s quickly pulled together an auction of Pak’s digital artworks, as well as a collection of NFTs made in the medium’s early days. Phillips responded by selling a regenerative piece by Mad Dog Jones. 

Fears over an NFT bubble have not entirely subsided, though digital art is starting to blend with the rest of the market. NFT sales quickly became a fixture of this season’s auction schedules, from Christie’s collaboration with FEWOCiOUS to Sotheby’s sale of the World Wide Web’s source code. 

More notably, cryptocurrency is becoming a viable payment option at auction houses. Phillips announced plans to accept Bitcoin or Ethereum as payment for a physical work of art during its contemporary art collaboration with Poly Auction. This was a first for a major auction house in Asia. The other large companies quickly responded. Bidders can soon use cryptocurrency to pay for a 101.38-carat diamond at Sotheby’s or an untitled Keith Haring painting at Christie’s. The Haring painting is one of the first artworks of the 1980s to capture an Apple Macintosh computer, pointing toward the digital future. Collectors can now view the piece online, place a bid during a live stream, and pay with digital assets. Both literally and metaphorically, this sale indicates an art market that is more pixelated than ever before. 

Interested in more art market news? Auction Daily writer James Ardis recently spoke with art advisor Elisa Carollo about the state of the market in 2021. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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