The Art Market in 2020: Looking Back at a Whirlwind Year

Webb’s two highest prices this year were for paintings by Tony Fomison.

2020 has been an extraordinary year in many respects. It’s likely that few of us will ever forget it. While it appeared in the first quarter that a black swan recession could bring a very challenging year for art markets, what has come to pass is quite contrary to that scenario. Webb’s has implemented a series of innovative campaigns to complement each catalogue, including pop-up exhibitions in Wellington and video content which garnered hundreds of thousands of views. This fresh approach, along with a characteristically strong performance from our team, has seen interest surge – the last flagship art auction was attended by over 300 people. Correspondingly, Webb’s has recorded a bumper year in art sales. Turnover has surpassed expectations at $6.2 million.

Our third highest price was  for a painting by Philip Clairmont.
Phillip Clairmont, 1967, photographer unknown.

This figure has included some record-breaking sales for the Christchurch counterculture duo of Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont, who racked up our top three prices for artworks. Webb’s achieved both the highest and second highest ever prices for works by Fomison, fetching $516,537 for Garden of Eden Aotearoa (the highest price for a 20th Century artist at auction in NZ this year) and $480,500 for Watcher on the Shore – that’s a million in sales for just two paintings. Prior to these two sales, the average price across the artist’s top ten auction prices was around $170,000, so this demonstrates a big market shift. Clairmont’s Buddha Vietnam was also up for auction in November. Most major works by Clairmont don’t break $60,000, but this work smashed through that level and soared. It reached $240,250, the highest price for the artist this year and the second highest ever. These are rock ‘n’ roll prices for rock ‘n’ roll artists, and not before time. Both artists have had extremely loyal and enduring followings, yet they have been historically undervalued. It is promising to see that the market is catching on.

The fourth highest price for art at Webb’s was achieved by Yayoi Kusama’s untitled artwork, which attracted $180,187 (see the fascinating backstory of this work here). Michael Smither’s Manifesto found a buyer at $134,540 – a top ten pricing for work by this artist. Colin McCahon’s Load Bearing Structures, Series 2 reached $109,313 – a record for work from this series. At seventh was Don Binney’s Te Henga, which fetched $102,106. Ralph Hotere’s Black Window came in at $96,100 and McCahon’s Waterfall saw $94,997. The top ten was rounded out by Bill Hammond’s Zoomorphic Detail, which achieved $72,075.

Two paintings by Colin McCahon are featured in our top ten prices for the year.

Notable on this list is that there is just a solitary work by a woman artist – Kusama’s untitled work. So, where are the women? Part of the reason you don’t see many women represented in lists like this is because they have historically been underrepresented and underpromoted in the commercial sector. But there are signals that this is starting to change. Fiona Pardington’s incomparable photographs have achieved excellent results at Webb’s this year. Her 2009 signed print Female Huia reached $39,040. This is remarkably consistent with Huia, Kani Kani, 2004 and A001171, 2019 which achieved $38,440 and $37,230 respectively. These prices smash sales from previous years, which saw similar works track between slightly north of $6k and slightly south of $15k. This year’s excellent results demonstrate that the market is eager to champion Pardington, and women artists in general. Sales of Gretchen Albrecht’s work saw increases of a comparable scale. Rose Garden (Reine des Violettes), 2008 reached $44,450 this year, whereas comparable work sold for around the $18,000 mark in prior years. Results achieved by women modernists Doris Lusk and Louise Henderson also indicate a groundswell of support. If the Kusama story has anything to teach us, it is that there are some great undiscovered artworks out there. A major work by a woman modernist coming to auction would quite possibly see unprecedented market buzz.

2020 has also shown that, once again, Colin is cool – it has been an excellent year for Aotearoa’s pioneering Modernist. McCahon has always been well regarded, yet there was a time when his work was only purchased by a small educated subset of the market. That has changed. His work has been smashing estimates, and the more-accessible $50-$100k sector of the market has broadened significantly. This is clearly on the back of the increased exposure that has come with his centenary, and because he is a household name. This combination of factors has seen younger buyers and market newcomers gravitate toward Colin, snapping up accessible works. As the two McCahon sales in our top ten demonstrate, the benchmarks are rising. Waterfall and similar works have traded around the $50k price point in recent years while works in the Load Bearing Structures series have hovered in the $50k – $70k range. This year’s breakout prices are in the ballpark of 50% – 75% higher than those historic benchmarks. This is definitely a signal that McCahon is likely to perform well in 2021.

As the curtains come down on this year, perhaps the most tumultuous many of us have lived through, a few things have become clear – Webb’s is a clear market leader when it comes to 20th Century artists, we’re smashing previous benchmarks and building markets for artists which didn’t exist before. We’re creating marketing campaigns which speak the language of the new world, and we’re telling the stories that matter about New Zealand art history. The market is better than it’s ever been – at fever pitch! A warm thank you to our vendors, buyers and supporters. We look forward to seeing you all again in 2021.

Our November sale included a work by Yayoi Kusama, the highest selling female artist in the world.
Ralph Hotere in 1974, national film unit production still
Ans Westra, Don Binney and a friend at a party, Wellington, 1970. Photographed by Ans Westra.

Contact Our Team

Charles Ninow
Head of Art
+ 64 21 053 6504

Adrienne (AD) Schierning
Manager, Art
+ 64 27 929 5609

Top Ten Prices

1 .       Tony Fomison 
           Garden of Eden Aotearoa
oil on jute on board, artist’s frame
855 x 1375mm
Price realised $516,537 
The highest price for a 20th century
artist this year. A record price for this artist.

2 .       Tony Fomison
           Watcher on the Shore 
oil on jute on board 
920 x 1200mm 
Price realised $480,500
The second-highest price
for this artist ever.

3 .       Philip Clairmont
           Buddha Vietnam 
acrylic on hessian
1236 x 906mm
Price Realised $240,250
The highest price for the artist this year.
The second-highest price for this artist ever.

4 .       Yayoi Kusama 
           untitled 無題 
ink on paper
760 x 560mm
Price Realised $180,187
The highest ever price for this artist in New Zealand.

5 .       Michael Smither 
           Manifesto Café 
oil on board
790 x 1200mm
Price Realised $134,540
One of the artist’s top ten prices.

6 .       Colin McCahon 
           Load Bearing Structures    
           Series 2

acrylic on board 
277 x 355mm
Price Realised $109,313
A record price for a work from this series.

7 .       Don Binney 
           Te Henga 
oil on canvas
835 x 745mm
Price Realised $102,106

8 .       Ralph Hotere
           Black Window – Mungo at
oil based enamel on board, villa sash window frame 
1040 x 660mm
Price Realised $96,100

9 .       Colin McCahon 
oil on board
300 x 250mm
Price Realised $94,997

10 .       Bill Hammond
             Zoomorphic Detail 
acrylic on canvas
595 x 400mm
Price Realised $93,096