The rise and rise of Post-War and Contemporary art

16 June 2022

The past fifteen years - an assessment - by Anthony McNerney, Director of Contemporary Art at Gurr Johns.

Outdoor overlapping oval statue with landscape visible in background.

Over the past 15 years, post-war and contemporary art has dominated the art market. In some ways, this echoes the 1980s when impressionist and modern art disrupted a market ruled by Old Masters, then the age-old mainstay of the art trade. That sea change was driven by new international buyers who competed for masterpieces such as Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers which made front page news when it sold at Christie’s London in 1987 for $39.2 million1 - three times the previous world record price for a painting - or his portrait of Dr Gachet which made $82.5 million2 just three years later in Christie’s New York.

The start of Post-War and Contemporary art market growth

In 2013, Francis Bacon’s triptych portrait of Lucian Freud sold for over $140 million3 in Christie’s New York – a record price at the time. Such was the growth of this more modern sector of the market that by the following year, almost half of all global sales at auction were accounted for by post-war and contemporary art with sales of $7.9 billion, according to 2013 TEFAF Art Market Report.4 However, it hasn’t been a smooth curve and even the bounce in 2021 hasn’t quite matched that historic peak.  According to figures published in March 2022 in The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, in 2021 this section of the auction market totalled $6.7 billion, though it represented 55% of all auction sales, a remarkable 42% increase on 2020, and with the number of lots sold increasing by 13%. So how can this market have grown so quickly, and what's driving it?

Top end art can be a safe and reliable investment in unstable times

The predominant factor is pure economics… an explosion in demand coupled with a plentiful supply generated by galleries, auctions and art fairs. Globalisation and cultural changes have resulted in more people around the world than ever before collecting art. Art at the top end has become a reliable store of value and a safe-haven in unstable times and whilst many of the major works by Old Master and Impressionist artists are now secure in museum collections, it is far easier for today’s top collectors to acquire museum-quality contemporary art. On top of this, the rise of stock markets and property prices has spurred record numbers of the ‘ultra-wealthy’. According to recent figures published by Forbes Magazine there are now 2,668 billionaires around the globe and collectively they are worth an eye-watering $12.7 trillion.5 Unsurprisingly the top three markets for post war and contemporary art, as revealed by the latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, reflect the origins of this wealth: US (47%), China (24%) and UK (13%).

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the highest selling artist in 2021

Worth noting is the fact that the majority of this market’s value in auction sales is actually represented by only about 50 to 100 superstar artists; Jean-Michel Basquiat was the highest selling post-war and contemporary artist in 2021 with total accumulated sales of over $439 million from just 104 works of art, according to The Art Market in 2021 published by And in May 2022, at the most recent series of major New York auctions which realised a staggering combined total of $1.82 billion, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn by Andy Warhol sold at Christie’s for a record $195 million, making it the most expensive piece of 20th century art sold at auction7; at that price, this single painting alone would represent 3% of the entire global auction market for the category in 2021.

Great art doesn’t have to cost millions

Although the headlines are filled with big prices for big names, most of the sales every year are at much lower price levels. According to the latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, more than half of sales were for less than $5,000, and only around 1% for over $1 million, so there is plenty of opportunity to buy great art for just hundreds or thousands of pounds, rather than millions.

The extraordinary growth in this market means that values can fluctuate, so regular insurance valuations are imperative to ensure that works are being insured at the correct level.

About Gurr Johns

Gurr Johns is a fine art and antique valuations specialist, established over a century ago. 

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