Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the top ten sales of works from the 1950s.

The Top Ten of the 1950s RankArtistHammer PriceArtworkSale1Mark ROTHKO$65 000 000 White

The Top Ten of the 1950s
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Mark ROTHKO $65 000 000 White Center (1950) 15/05/2007 (Sotheby’s New York NY)
2 Alberto GIACOMETTI $47 500 000 Grande tête mince (1954) 04/05/2010 (Christie’s New York NY)
3 Mark ROTHKO $45 000 000 No. 15 (1952) 13/05/2008 (Christie’s New York NY)
4 Alberto GIACOMETTI $44 500 000 Grande tête mince (grande tête de Diego) (1954) 06/11/2013 (Sotheby’s New York NY)
5 Norman Perceval ROCKWELL $41 000 000 Saying Grace (1951) 04/12/2012 (Sotheby’s New York NY)
6 Mark ROTHKO $41 000 000 No. 11 (Untitled) (1957) 12/11/2013 (Christie’s New York NY)
7 XU Beihong $36 679 200 Cultivation of the peaceful lan (1951) 05/21/2011 (Poly International Auction Co.,Ltd Pékin)
8 Franz KLINE $36 000 000 Untitled (1957) 14/11/2012 (Christie’s New York NY)
9 Jackson POLLOCK $36 000 000 Number 4 (1951) 13/11/2012 (Sotheby’s New York NY)
10 Mark ROTHKO $30 500 000 Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange) (1955) 13/11/2007 (Christie’s New York NY)


This Fifties category is dominated by American artists, with the top names attracting particularly high prices that range from $30.5 million to a record high of $65 million. Eight of these top ten sales were made in New York. Mark Rothko dominates our list with three places, including first and tenth positions. He has reaped the benefit of a sharp increase in the value of American abstract expressionism since 2007.

American dominance
Abstract expressionism is considered to be the first great American artistic movement. It represents a true milestone in art history, encompassing large-scale abstract paintings that strongly reflect the artists’ individual psyches. Expressionism attracts some of the world’s top collectors. It is hardly surprising that three artists – Mark ROTHKO (1903-1970), Franz KLINE (1910-1962), Jackson POLLOCK (1912-1956) – take half of the places in this ranking. But there was a more unexpected turn last year when another American, the figurative painter Norman Perceval ROCKWELL (1894-1978) broke his previous record by $27.5 million, doubling his provisional estimates.

Over the past five years, Mark Rothko has been the most sought-after painter in the Color Field style (up + 130 % since 2003), but Jackson Pollock is the absolute champion of action painting. Today, Pollock belongs to the elite club of the world’s most expensive painters. During 2013 – the art market’s best year ever – five canvases sold for over $50 million, including a Pollock piece entitled Number 19. Painted in 1948, this work gradually increased in value to hit a peak of $52 million, smashing Christie’s high estimate by $17 million, despite the fact that this estimate was based on the artist’s previous record (Number 4, 76,5 cm x 63,5 cm, sold for $36 million on 8 May 2012). Number 19 is just one in a series of major new records set in 2013. By the end of this buoyant year, the artist had moved up to number 15 in the world rankings thanks to sales in excess of $100 million spread across a mere 10 lots. With the average price of a Pollock now hovering around the $10 million mark, does he have any more affordable works on the market? The answer is yes, but buyers have to be prepared to shell out between $5,000 and $10,000 for a small print. For example, last year in Munich, Ketterer sold a drypoint etching from 1944 for $7,200 (20 April 2013).
Franz Kline is an artist whose value is just beginning to catch up with that of his compatriots. Only one Kline work has broken the $10 million barrier. This was in 2012 when a majestic abstract work from 1957 was snapped up for $36 million. But not all of Kline’s works sell for such high prices. 60% of his works can be purchased for less than $100,000 at auction, and 10% for less than $9,000. And it is not only prints that are available at such low prices. Small oils or watercolours from the 1940s often appear in the sale rooms, though of course they are far removed from the abstract works that made the artist’s name on the international art scene.


Alberto Giacometti vs Rothko
In terms of absolute records, Alberto GIACOMETTI comes out ahead of American artist Mark Rothko. However, in our Top Ten, these two artists share the top four places. Alongside Jeff Koons, Alberto Giacometti is one of the world’s most expensive painters, draughtsmen, engravers and sculptors. He had a major impact on the art market in 2010, when for a few weeks he was the world’s most expensive artist at auction. In February 2010 his sculpture from 1960 entitled L’Homme qui marche I sold for £58 million ($92.5 million, Sotheby’s), breaking the record that Pablo Picasso had held for six years (Le Garçon à la pipe, $93 million, May 2004). Three months later, galvanised by this record price, bidders pushed up the price of number 3/6 of Grande tête mince (Grande tête de Diego) to $47.5 million, some $12 million above its high estimate. Grande tête mince, a bronze created in 1954, is just one-third the size of L’Homme qui marche I, but it became his second-highest sale and also takes second place in our ranking of the most expensive works of the 1950s. In 2013, number 6/6 of Grande tête went under the hammer for a figure that was $3 million lower. But this still gives it fourth place in our rankings. Number 5/6 sold for $12.5 million in 2002 ($13.7 million including the buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s). So between its first appearance at auction in 2002 and today, the value of the portrait of Diego has soared by over 260%. After these three sculptures, the fourth most expensive work by Giacometti is an oil on canvas depicting the artist’s brother. Sold for $29 million at Christie’s in November 2013, it just fails to make our Top Ten, as Mark Rothko clinches the last place at $30.5 million.

The only Chinese artist on our list is XU Beihong (1895-1953). With very few exceptions, all his sales take place in China and Hong Kong. He is famed for his ability to give a modern twist to traditional painting, and collectors fall over themselves to snap up his representations of animals and galloping horses. What makes Xu so special? His art transcends disciplines and reinterprets traditional Chinese techniques by adopting a more western style of composition. Taking his influences from both China and the West, he is considered to be one of the first major painters to use the western technique of oil on canvas to depict classic Chinese themes. Indeed, Xu trained in both schools: after studying art in Shanghai and Tokyo, the young artist set off for Paris in 1919 to study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and he stayed on in Europe for several years. In 1947, in the wake of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he became president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and chairman of the China Artists’ Association. The piece that earns him his place in our Top Ten is a later drawing from 1951 (the artist died just two years later). It brought him his all-time record of $36.6 million (over $42 million, including buyer’s premium). However, his market now seems to be running out of steam. His best sale in 2013 was 10 times lower than his record set in 2011.