Yayoi Kusama Was the Top Selling Contemporary Artist of 2023

Female artists are gaining momentum in the field of contemporary art, according to a report focused on work produced in the 21st Century.

Woman with colorful red hair sits in bright gallery
Yayoi Kusama. Steve Eichner/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist known for her bright patterned paintings, sculptures and installations, generated $80.9 million at auction last year, making her the best-selling contemporary artist of 2023, according to the Hiscox Artist Top 100 report. In second place with $50.3 million was David Hockney, the top-selling 21st-century artist of 2022.

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Kusama’s highest-selling work of the year was her 2014 painting A Flower, which fetched nearly $10 million at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong. The majority of Kusama’s auction sales—around 80 percent—took place in Hong Kong in 2023, signifying strong Asian demand likely driven by a recent retrospective held at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, according to the contemporary art report from specialty insurer Hiscox and market research firm ArtTactic.

“Despite being 95 years old, Japanese trailblazer Yayoi Kusama remains one of the most influential female artists,” said Robert Read, head of art and private clients at Hiscox, in a statement. She wasn’t the only woman who dominated the art market last year. Cecily Brown was the fourth-best-selling contemporary artist with $31.7 million generated by sales of her work, while Julie Mehretu saw her sales total at $21.4 million.

A resilient market for female artists

Auctions have seen the number of works by contemporary female artists rise by 179 percent in the past five years, according to the report, which also noted that female artists accounted for 32 percent of contemporary sales in 2023 compared to 29 percent the year prior. Shows like the recently opened Yoko Ono retrospective at Tate Modern and MoMA’s Leslie Thornton exhibition are expected to keep this momentum going throughout the year. And while the overall value of contemporary work sales by women did fall by 8 percent in 2023, female artists had a stronger showing compared to a 20 percent sales decrease from male artists.

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Consistent with global auction trends, total sales of contemporary art at auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby's and Phillips dipped by 17 percent in 2023 but remained 26 percent above pre-pandemic levels from 2019. The drop was mostly spurred on by falling interest in artwork valued above $1 million, which decreased by 12 percent in terms of lots sold—a dynamic also noted in the newest art market report from Art Basel and UBS.

“Wet paint” works, a term used for those produced in the past two years, didn’t fare much better. While there was an uptick in sales from 397 in 2019 to 1,110 in 2023, the actual value of these auctions fell by 36 percent last year. Generative artist Tyler Hobbs and figurative painter Albert Willem topped the list for the amount of wet paint works sold, followed by NFT artist Dmitri Cherniak.

Younger artists also struggled, with fewer than half of all works by artists under age 45 selling above their mid-estimate compared to 65 percent in 2022. These auctions accounted for only 21 percent of sales by value, down from 30 percent the year prior. “As you can see, art trends move at quite a pace. Flipping continues but is less lucrative and since we last reported, the market has softened considerably,” said Read, adding that “this is particularly challenging for younger artists who’ve seen the price of their work reduce considerably.”

Yayoi Kusama Was the Top Selling Contemporary Artist of 2023