The Bestselling Contemporary Artists

From Jasper Johns to Miquel Barceló

When the hammer finally came down at Christie’s of London, Faena de Muleta by Miquel Barceló had sold for €4.4m. Two days later, another one of his works sold for €2.6m. Those auction results in June of last year helped catapult the Mallorcan artist in to the major league of living contemporary artists and stun the world of art.

Contemporary art is a lucrative trade that made up about 10% of the global art market last year, when more than 40,000 works were sold. Whereas in 2001, $88m worth of contemporary art was sold, last year that figure was $1.26bn.

1. Jasper Johns

As one of the least prolific of contemporary artists, 82-year-old American Jasper Johns is much prized by collectors – he’s averaged no more than five works a year for about three decades. In 1959, he painted False Start, which six years ago was purchased for $80m, a record for a painting by a living artist. His Flag 1960-66 was purchased in May 2010 for $25.5m, the best hammer price for a living artist in the past two years.

2. Gerhard Richter

This 80-year-old German painter is best known for his blurry photo-paintings, though his best price was for his 1997 Abstraktes Bild (849-3) which sold last November for $20.8m. The buyer donated it to the Israel Museum. Over the past two years, his works have sold by almost $243m, compared with $66.3m by Johns. Richter is also pretty prolific, having painted some 3,000 works. Not all sell – another Abstraktes Bild failed to garner a bid at an auction in May.

3. Jeff Koons

His Pink Panther sold for $15m last year when it was expected to maybe fetch double that. Jeff Koons is known for Puppy, a 13-metre tall sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier made from clipped plants that is on display outside the Guggenheim Bilbao. In 2008, his works sold for $117.2m, a year later the figure fell to $47m, while in the past two years it has stabilised at $36m in each.

4. Cui Ruzhou 

The Chinese have become major players in the Contemporary Art market, with almost half of all sales last year being in China. Cui Ruzhou, aged 68, is virtually unheard of in Europe despite his works selling for more than $85m over the past two years. His brand of traditional finger painting landscapes is a big hit with the collector compatriots and last November his Lotus, a collection of inkbrush scrolls, sold for $14.1m.

5. Zhang Xiaogang

Considered a Symbolist and a Surrealist, 54-year-old Zhang Xiaogang’s Forever Lasting Love, a three-panel oil painting from 1988, was bought in April of last year for $9m. It was part of an auction of contemporary Chinese works sold by Belgian industrialist Baron Guy Ullens, which alone was responsible for almost one-tenth of all Chinese sales last year. His Bloodline series has achieved Pop Art cult status.

6. Peter Doig

Scottish-born Peter Doig, 53, generally paints somewhat abstract landscapes, which have been compared to Post-Impressionism, and makes this list thanks to his 2003-04 work Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) which went for $8.8m in June of last year. He’s not a generally spectacular seller, with a total auction turnover of $22.5m for his works since 2010. Not all go for big money – Drifter, from 100 Years ago, sold for a mere £7,500 in January.

7. Zao Wou-ki

The most ‘European’ of the Chinese artists in the list, 92-year-old Zao Wou-ki moved to Paris in 1948. Zao’s works are abstract though he is no longer painting as he suffers from Alzheimer’s. In October of last year, his oil painting 10.1.1968 sold for $7.8m, in what was a good year for him – sales of his works almost doubled from $46.5m to $91.9m.

8. Urs Fischer

Something of an enfant terrible, 39-year-old Swiss Pop artist Urs Fischer is the youngest in the list. His Untitled (Lamp/Bear) sold in May of last year for €6m, a price that can be seen as something of a shock because since 2010, his works have had an auction turnover of  $14.3m. His acrylics have a surrealist touch, often featuring portraits of actors whose faces are covered by objects such as a cucumber slice or twisted nails.

9. Richard Prince

To say an artist is controversial is hardly a revelation but the name of 63-year-old American Richard Prince has been causing ructions over the thorny issue of copyright infringement. Eighteen months ago, a US judge ordered he destroy works worth tens of millions of dollars because the paintings were reworkings of someone else’s photos. Prince made his name in the mid-1970s through rephotography, where techniques such as blurring, cropping and enlarging are used to intensify the original work. His Runaway Nurse sold for $6m last year.

10. Miquel Barceló

Miquel Barceló has been well known beyond art circles on the island for years, especially after his, for some, controversial Chapel of the Most Holy in Palma Cathedral, which he spent seven years working on (it took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling). Barceló, 55, has created a famous ceiling of his own, a €20m project at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, the Unesco headquarters. The €4.4m ($5.6m) sale of Faena de Muleta last year cemented his place at the top table.