In the world of art, the 80/20 rule, aka the Pareto principle, is as applicable as in any other area. The most expensive contemporary art is created by a few artists who command the highest prices. Their artworks are present on major auctions and are coveted by art investors.
When looking at such artworks, the question of why art is so expensive becomes a no-brainer. Here is our top-5 list of the most expensive contemporary artists responsible for the bigger chunk of art sales.
1. Jeff Koons
Best known for his sculptures, Jeff Koons needs little introduction and is by no question the most influential American artist of the post-Warhol era. Jeff Koons’s artworks are not only the most expensive but also the largest in size, like his 10-foot-tall stainless steel Balloon Dog or 41-feet tall bouquet of Tulips now on display at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, purchased by the hotel owner for $33.6 million.
Meanwhile, the most expensive contemporary art piece by Jeff Koons is not the biggest one. Indeed, the 3-foot-high stainless steel Rabbit is one of the artist’s smallest sculptures sold for $91 million by Christie’s New York and became the world’s most expensive work of art by a living artist.
2. Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was an African-American artist who has created the most expensive contemporary art on the planet. So far, he remains the first among contemporary artists whose work, Untitled, 1982, was sold for a 9-digit figure. Japanese businessman, Yusaku Maezawa, bought this artwork for an astounding $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in New York in 2017.
Starting as a street artist in Lower Manhattan, Basquiat has focused on racism, poverty and social issues. Basquiat’s art is largely based on graffiti style, much influenced by Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s landlord and close friend. Basquiat’s paintings steadily grow in price and are present at all major auctions.
Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, is based in Brooklyn, New York but is most appealing to the Asian audience, with 53% of his work sold in Asia and only 10% in the US. Most famous for his Companion character, inspired by Disney’s Mickey Mouse, KAWS represents another example of how Pop culture influences contemporary art.
KAWS is also known for his line of vinyl toys, cooperation with brands including Uniqlo, Dior, and Nike, and larger-than-life sculptures. Today, KAWS’s most expensive contemporary artwork is The Kaws Album, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million in 2005. The picture was inspired by The Simpson animated comedy, showing Kimpsons, an author’s interpretation of the original Simpson characters whose eyes are replaced by KAWS world-famous “X” signature.
4. Peter Doig
The only European from our Top 5 selection of artists creating the most expensive contemporary artworks, Peter Doig comes from Scotland. He paints mainly landscapes and draws inspiration from photographs, sometimes those of his own, with many scenes taken from Trinidad and Canada, where the artist has spent a great part of his life. Meanwhile, Doig has stated that he “made no attempt to reflect setting” and uses postcards and paintings as “proxy.” In fact, his figurative art is far from realism, including abstract and mythical elements, strongly affected by the vibrant colors of Trinidad, where the artist has lived from 2002.
The list of Doig’s best-known works is quite extensive, including his iconic White Canoe sold for $11.3 million at Sotheby’s London in 2007, starting multi-million sales of Doig’s work at major auctions or even more famous Country-Rock (Wing-Mirror) representing a famous Canadian’ rainbow tunnel, sold for $14.5 in 2014. The most expensive of Doig’s works, Swamped, was created in 1990 and sold for $25.9 million at Christie’s New York in 2015.
5. Christopher Wool
Another world-famous New York artist, Christopher Wool, is best known for his “word paintings” consisting of separate words or texts on white canvasses. Like Basquiat, Wool has found inspiration in graffiti art and is more often referred to as a conceptual artist than a painter. Recognizing the influence of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, Wool has created his own style of word paintings, opening the texts through composition. One of the examples is Wools’ famous four-letter word paintings with the letters stacked two over two offering multiple readings, text from the movies such as Apocalypse Now or thoughts of a Russian revolutionary.
The artist had started his first “word painting” in the 80s but became best known after 2000 when his works were exhibited at Beverly Hills by Larry Gagosian. After that, the prices for Christopher Wool art have skyrocketed by more than 2,000%, with the four-letter painting Riot fetching $29.9 million while Apocalypse Now was sold for $26.5 million. In total, Christopher Wool has generated more than $600 million in auctions, establishing himself as one of the most expensive contemporary artists.