In 2023, Blue-Chip Artists Stumbled on the Auction Block as Their Markets Nosedived

If one were looking for a common thread that ties the 2023 art market together into a neat package, a market softening, or some variation on that theme, would be a wise bet. As early as May, prognosticators were squawking about the market’s inevitable downturn, citing bullish expectations from consigners and a the increasing cost of money. starwin88

But not everything has changed. While an auction of Gerald Fineberg’s collection at Christie’s this past May seems to have marked the end of a brief boom, the sale also proved that blue-chip artists with established markets, like Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons, couldn’t claw their way out of a slump that began at the start of the 2020s.

Back in November 2021, Artnet News took a deep dive into Wool’s market. The outlook wasn’t good. According to Artnet’s analysis, his sales at auction dipped an astonishing 25 percent since its heyday in 2013, when his painting Apocalypse Now (1988) sold for more than $25 million at Christie’s (all figures include the buyer’s fees unless otherwise noted).

That work featured text referencing a note from a deranged Army captain that appears in a 1979 film by Francis Ford Coppola: SELL THEHOUSE SELL THECAR SELL THEKIDS. But it could have just as well have alluded to how desperate collectors seemed to buy Wool’s work. starwin88

That’s no longer the case. A colleague at ARTnews called the Fineberg sale tepid, and specifically noted that Wool’s untitled 1993 painting that features the sentence “FUCK EM IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE” splayed across the canvas in bright, popping colors hammered $8.4 million, or $10 million with fees, well under its estimate of $15 million–$20 million.

The market for Koons, easily one of the most famous, and expensive, artists in the world, has borne a similar trajectory. In recent years, Koons has been beset by production delays, with angry collectors clamoring for work they’d paid for years before. His market has also taken a dive in the past few years and has yet to rebound, despite departing longtime galleries Gagosian and Davis Zwirner for Pace, a move which reportedly might streamline his production methods.

Of the seven works of his that sold at one of the three major auction houses in 2023, two sold for just above the low estimate, one was withdrawn, and Kiepenkerl (Humpty Dumpty), from 1987 and offered at the Fineberg sale, sold for $1.9 million when it was estimated to sell for between $3 million and $5 million. While some of the Koons works did sell above their estimate, only one broke the $4 million mark—which is surprising when one considers that the record for the sale at auction of a work by Koons was made just a few years ago, when his 1986 sculpture Rabbit sold for $91 million at Christie’s in May 2019. While Koons hasn’t had a major work like Rabbit, up for auction in a few years, these duds could be related to the lack of interest in his “Gazing Ball” paintings in 2017 and the subsequent downsizing of his studio, all of which could point to a general downturn in his market.

Koons and Wool aren’t alone in market Purgatory. Former market star John Currin’s work has also been in a years long tailspin. Currin’s 1999 picture two naked women jovial chatting on a black background Nice ‘n Easy failed to sell at Christie’s in November despite a relatively low estimate, $7 million – $10 million. In 2016 that same work sold at Christie’s for just over $12 million, a whisper over it’s low estimate. In 2008 at Sotheby’s it went for $5.4 million, comfortably over its high estimate of $4.5 million. starwin88