How to Build an Empire: The Most Successful Contemporary Artists

Isabella de Souza
written by Isabella de Souza,
Date of publication12 Aug 2023
Last updated8 Dec 2023
An image of the print Dollar (F. & S. II.278) by Andy Warhol. It shows a stylised dollar sign depicted in green and yellow against a white background.Dollar (F. & S. II.278) © Andy Warhol 1982
Joe Syer

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In an era where creativity and commerce intersect with remarkable dynamism, the world of contemporary art has seen an unprecedented surge in economic value. Some of the living artists today have accumulated significant success, in terms of both finance and fame, a testament to the recognition of their talents and soaring market demand for their works.

In the realm of Modern & Contemporary art, certain artists have pushed the boundaries of art and skilfully navigated the complexities of the market, and their creations have fetched astounding prices at galleries and auctions worldwide. In many instances, they have also broadened their reach through collaborations with fashion houses, album artwork and public installations, further amplifying their market value and global influence.

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1.

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is an English artist, entrepreneur, and art collector, and one of the most prominent members of the group known as the Young British Artists (or YBAs), who dominated the art scene in the UK during the 1990s. He is well known for his provocative, often shocking, works that challenge conventions and question the nature of art itself.

When Hirst last appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List in 2020, he was estimated to be worth around £315 million. His wealth primarily comes from his work as an artist, with his pieces selling for millions of dollars at auctions and via private sales. His most valuable artwork is Golden Calf, which sold at Sotheby’s for over £10 million in 2018, and only recently he has made £20 million from his generated series with Heni editions. However, he has also had other business ventures, especially within the restaurant industry, and additionally has a significant property portfolio.

2.

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons is a prominent American artist known for working with popular culture subjects and his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. His works have sold for substantial amounts of money, including at record-setting auction prices for a work by a living artist: one of his sculptures, Rabbit, sold for more than $91 million at Christie's in 2019. He has also had lucrative deals with iconic brands like Louis Vuitton, further marketing his art as a luxury item.

3.

David Choe

David Choe is a multi-hyphenate American artist known for his figurative paintings, murals, graffiti and graphic novels. His self-titled “dirty style” brings up themes of desire, degradation and exaltation, and his works have fetched considerable prices at auction. However, he has gained wider recognition and considerably more wealth due to a unique investment he made early in his career.

In 2005, Choe was asked to paint murals on the walls of the headquarters of a then-startup company, Facebook. Rather than taking a cash payment, Choe opted to receive shares in the company – at considerable risk, as Facebook was not the ubiquitous presence that it is now. However, his gamble paid off: when Facebook went public in 2012, the value of those shares ballooned, making Choe a multi-millionaire. It is estimated that his Facebook shares were worth around £150 million at the time of the initial public offering, although the exact figure could have fluctuated depending on when he chose to sell his shares and the market price at the time.

4.

Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor is a British-Indian sculptor known for his large-scale, often public, installations. He has been a highly successful artist, and has accumulated significant wealth through the sale of his artwork. One of his most famous works is Cloud Gate, often referred to as "The Bean," in Chicago's Millennium Park. Other well-known works include the Orbit in London, a large-scale public sculpture created for the London 2012 Olympics.

In 2019, the Sunday Times Rich List estimated Kapoor's net worth to be around £135 million. Apart from his income from artwork sales, Kapoor also generates wealth through other activities related to his art. For instance, he infamously holds the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in artistic works – it is the blackest black pigment that absorbs almost 100% of light. This unique quality could potentially increase the value of his future works, thus adding to his wealth.

5.

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami is a Japanese artist who is known for blurring the boundaries between high and low culture. He works in fine arts media – such as painting and sculpture – as well as commercial media like fashion, merchandise and animation. He is recognised for his distinct "Superflat" style, which draws from traditional Japanese painting, otaku subculture, and Western art theory. One of his sculptures, My Lonesome Cowboy, sold for £7.8 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2008, setting a record for his work.

Various sources suggest that his wealth could be in the range of £80 million, accumulated not just from his artwork sales but also from his collaborations with high-profile fashion houses and musicians. Perhaps most famously, he collaborated with fashion brand Louis Vuitton, creating colorful designs for the brand's bags and other products – some of which remain the most iconic and sought after in Vuitton’s history. He has also collaborated with Kanye West for album art and directed a feature film.

6.

David Hockney

David Hockney has been a significant figure in the art world since the 1960s, well-known for his paintings, drawings, printmaking, set designs, and photography, having had a considerable impact on pop art and beyond. Hockney has also published a number of books and created set designs for venues such as the Royal Court Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Music Center.

Hockney's net worth has been estimated to be around £120 million, and has primarily been accumulated through the sale of his artworks: in 2020, single-handedly sold over £100 million in paintings at auction. In 2018, Hockney's 1972 work Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold at auction for over £70 million, setting a record at the time for the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction.

7.

Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley is a British sculptor, famous for his large-scale public art installations and statues, often based on casts of his own body. His most well-known work is probably the Angel of the North, a public sculpture in Gateshead in the North of England. Other noted works include Another Place, Event Horizon, and Field for the British Isles. His sculptures sell for significant sums and his public commissions, while not always lucrative in terms of direct profit, certainly contribute to his overall prestige and market value as an artist. His work is collected by major museums and private collectors worldwide, and he's been awarded numerous prizes for his contributions to the art world, including the Turner Prize in 1994. In addition to this, Gormley also makes income from the sales of smaller editions and reproductions of his work, as well as from exhibitions, books, and public speaking.

It is difficult to estimate Gormley’s wealth as he is a private individual, however he was already born into money – his father was a businessman who owned a pharmaceutical company. It is safe to assume that his net worth has only increased with his career success, especially considering his works sell for millions – his sculpture A Case For An Angel I anticipated Angel Of The North, and sold for over £5 million at auction in 2017.

8.

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter is a German visual artist and one of the most highly regarded and well-known artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. His vast body of work spans nearly six decades and includes abstract, photorealistic painted photographs, glass pieces and even a series of color chart paintings.

He is widely considered one of the wealthiest living artists in the world, primarily due to the sales of his artwork. His paintings regularly fetch high prices at auction, with several works selling for tens of millions of dollars. For instance, his painting Abstraktes Bild sold for £30.4 million at Sotheby's in 2015, setting a record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living European artist.

9.

Richard Prince

Richard Prince is an American painter and photographer known for his controversial rephotographing technique and his appropriation art. He has created notable series of works such as the Cowboys (rephotographs of Marlboro advertisements) and Joke Paintings.

His artwork sales suggest he has amassed significant wealth over his career, as his works have fetched high prices at auctions. For instance, his painting Nurse of Greenmeadow was sold for nearly £7 million at a Christie's auction in 2008. Also, in 2007, his Untitled (Cowboy) work became the first photograph to sell for over $1 million at auction.

10.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is a highly influential Japanese contemporary artist known for her extensive body of work spanning paintings, sculptures, installations, and performances. One of her most distinctive and popular series involves immersive infinity mirror rooms. Despite facing numerous personal challenges, including mental health issues, Kusama's commitment to her art has made her one of the most recognized and highest-selling female artists in the world.

With her net worth estimated at at least £20 million, it is clear that her works command high prices in the art market. For instance, in May 2022, a work from her Infinity Nets series sold at auction for more than £8.5 million, setting a record for a living female artist. In addition to her income from the sale of artworks, Kusama also earns money from exhibitions, installations and collaborations with brands. Like Murakami and Koons on this list, she has also worked with Louis Vuitton and other companies on unique design collaborations.

Joe Syer

Joe Syer, Co-Founder & Specialist[email protected]

Interested in buying or selling
an artwork?

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