From Warhol to Miró: The Top-Selling Artists of 2012


Andy Warhol is still a superstar; Pablo Picasso remains a household name; and Jean-Michel Basquiat will forever be a creative rebel without a cause., the online art site whose price database includes the auction results from more than 1,400 auction houses worldwide, just released a list of the world’s top-selling artists of 2012, with both surprising and anticipated statistics.

We analyzed the list to discover that Warhol was making amazing 3-D paintings back in 1962; Francis Bacon’s twisted portraits of his suicidal lover are his most coveted works; and rock legend Eric Clapton is a major art collector who’s reaping big returns on his past purchases. We also learned that 1981 — when he was still just 20 years old — was bad-boy Basquiat’s best year and that works from a handful of obscure Chinese painters are now selling for millions. Click through to see images of the year’s top-tiered works and read about who sold what and for how much.

Andy Warhol, Statue of Liberty, 1962. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Andy Warhol was the top money winner of the year with $380.5 million in sales. His 3-D painting of the Statue of Liberty topped his lots at $43.8 million in a November auction at Christie’s New York. The 1962 painting — one of Warhol’s seminal years — depicts the celebrated statue 24 times, in 4 rows of 6 images. It’s silkscreened in red over green ink on a white background to create the three-dimensional effect. “If you put on 3-D glasses, it becomes a grainy, black and white 3-D photograph,” said Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, which smartly marketed the sale of the canvas with 3-D glasses for the catalog.

Pablo Picasso, Nature Morte aux Tulipes, 1932

Pablo Picasso turned in an impressive $334.9 million in auction house sales in 2012 — with his highest selling work, Nature morte aux tulips (Still life with tulips) fetching $41.5 million at Sotheby’s New York. The 1932 masterpiece features the head of his mistress and muse Marie-Therese Walter in a sensual still life arrangement of tulips and fruits. It’s not just the beauty of the painting, however, that impressed potential buyers, but its provenance. It had previously been owned by mega-art-collector Francois Pinault and was offered at auction by Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (809-4) 1994

An abstract painting by German artist Gerhard Richter set a new record for the price paid at auction for the work of a living artist, after selling at Sotheby’s London for $33.4 million in October — adding to the 80-year-old artist’s phenomenal $298.9 million auction house tally for the year. Abstraktes Bild (809-4) [Abstract Picture (809-4)], which was owned by the legendary rock guitarist Eric Clapton, was sold to an anonymous buyer after only five minutes of bidding.

Qi Baishi, Ode to the Motherland, 1954

Chinese artist Qi Baishi has been on a roll the past few years. One of his paintings sold in in 2011 for $65.5 million — a record high for contemporary and modern Chinese paintings and calligraphy — and in 2012 the self-taught artist’s auction house sales reached $261.6 million, with his 1954 masterpiece Ode to the Motherland fetching $11.4 million at Beijing Poly’s autumn auction in Beijing. The poetic painting, which portrays of a red crown crane gazing at the red sun as it sets over the ocean, had once belonged to the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, but the identity of the recent seller remains unknown.

Zhang Daqian, Splashed-color Landscape, 1965

Chinese artist Zhang Daqian, who was an international success during his lifetime (1899-1983), also finished the year strongly with $242.4 million in auction sales – with his top-selling piece going for $6.9 million. Zhang was born into a family of artists and achieved early success in China, but left the country after the revolution. He lived in India, Argentina, Brazil, United States, and Taiwan — becoming famous for his modern impressionist and expressionist paintings, which even Pablo Picasso appreciated. The painting depicted here, Splashed-color Landscape, resides in the venerable collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961

In one of the biggest auction sales’ nights of the year, Christie’s New York sold Mark Rothko’s 1961 painting Orange, Red, Yellow for $86.8 million, which helped bring his year-end auction sales total to $187.2 million. The sale of the large painting shattered Rothko’s previous auction house record of $72.8 million, which was paid in 2007 for a slightly smaller painting that had belonged to American banking magnate David Rockefeller. The sublime Orange, Red, Yellow had been in collection of David Pincus, a notable art collector and Philadelphia clothing manufacturer, for 45 years. Long on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its sale by the Pincus family represents a big gain for the estate, yet a tremendous loss for Philly’s cultural community.

Li Keran, Landscape in Red, 1964

The third Chinese artist on the top-selling artists’ list in 2012 is Li Keran, who died in 1989. Known for introducing Western painting techniques into his Chinese traditional paintings, Li taught at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing for several decades, until he was dismissed and persecuted for being out of touch with China’s changing times during Cultural Revolution. His medium-sized 1964 Landscape in Red, which was inspired by a line from a Mao Zedong poem, sold for a whopping $46 million in the spring sale at Beijing’s Poly Auction — bringing the 2012 auction earnings for this relatively unknown artist, at least in the West, to an impressive $180.4 million.

Francis Bacon, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, 1976

An auction house favorite since his death in 1992, Francis Bacon — like Picasso — drastically changed the look of figurative painting. His 1976 painting Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, which is widely considered one of his best works of that turbulent decade, fetched $44.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in May. The enigmatic painting depicts a self-portrait of the nude artist at a writing desk merged with a mirror reflection of his former lover and muse George Dyer, who had committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror was part of the same Paris exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard in 1977 that later yielded Bacon’s top price at auction in 2008, when his Triptych, 1976 sold for $86.3 million at Sotheby’s New York. Auction house sales for Bacon’s work in 2012 achieved a respectable $172.2 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981

Setting an auction record for the artist, Jean-Michel Basqiuat’s 1981 Untitled delivered a remarkable $26.4 million for a private collector, who had owned the painting for the past 20 years. Basquiat canvases from 1981 are his most coveted works, when the artist was his most experimental and energetic, while still possessing a certain amount of naïveté. With a 1981 painting reaching $20.1 million auction at Christie’s in London in the fall and another one getting $16.3 million at Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York earlier in the spring, auction sales for Basquiat pulled in $161.5 million for the year.

Joan Miró, Peinture (Etoile Bleue), 1927

Rounding out the top-selling artists list for 2012, the Spanish surrealist Joan Miró had his best year of auction sales ever, with his poetic, 1927 abstraction, Peinture (Etoile Bleue), fetching $37 million at Sotheby’s London in June. Smashing his previous auction record and selling for three times as much as it had at auction just five years ago, the playful painting is part of his “dream paintings”cycle, with works from the series collected by major museums around the world. Strong sales over the course of 2012 pushed Miró’s year-end total to $155.2 million — big numbers for a mostly abstract artist.