Today (Nov. 15) at Christie’s, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) became the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction by a living artist, as it was expected to do. At $90,312,500, it broke the record previously held by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog.
But long before it broke any records, his dealer had sold the painting for the first time in 1972 for the bargain price of $18,000, Hockney told CNN. He said the painting took a little over half a year to complete; the first six months were spent on an initial version of the painting he eventually abandoned, and then he completed the version that sold at Christie’s in about two weeks.
The artist and his dealer quickly realized the picture was priced too low when the buyer sold it within six months, for $50,000. The paradox of such resales is that while they may raise an artist’s profile—and the pressure for them to produce—no portion of the sale, including today’s, goes directly to the artist.
Astronomical auction prices for works by living artists are a relatively new phenomenon, one that’s explored at length in the new HBO documentary The Price of Everything. In it, Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby—in her 30s, with a new baby and paintings newly auctioning for more than $1 million—tells filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn how challenging and distracting it can be to see her paintings “flipped” for a quick profit.
“There’s a temptation to get [paintings] out fast,” she says. “But if I speed up the production of the work, it will take away from all that’s behind the scenes that makes the work as rich as it is.”