This week’s bumper set of auctions in New York began in fine form at Christie’s on May 11 when a skull painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat went for $81m ($93.1m with fees, estimate $50m). The powerful “In This Case” (1983) was sold by the co-founder of fashion label Valentino, Giancarlo Giammetti, and had sold at auction for a mere $1m in 2002.

In total, the live-streamed sale made $179.4m ($210.5m with fees), at the high end of estimates, with an average hammer price of $4.8m across 39 lots. Demand demonstrated the market’s shift in taste towards less traditional fare, cemented during the pandemic. Digital art, backed by non-fungible tokens (NFTs), also featured. A sample selection of nine CryptoPunks, avatars created by the software developers Larva Labs in 2017 and seen as precursors of today’s crypto art scene, scored the second highest price of the evening at $14.5m ($17m with fees, est $7m-$9m). Two bidders were online but the work eventually sold over the phone to a Christie’s specialist based in Los Angeles.

Among the other record-breaking works was Jonas Wood’s bold “Two Tables with Floral Pattern” (2013) at $5.4m ($6.5m with fees, est $2m-$4m). Selling for far beyond its high estimate of $300,000 was Rashid Johnson’s “Anxious Red Painting December 18th” (2020), which made $1.6m ($1.95m with fees) and was donated by the artist to benefit the Community Organized Relief Effort charity.

This column went to press ahead of Christie’s 20th-century auction (Wednesday night) and Sotheby’s Impressionist to contemporary sales (Thursday night), estimated to make up to $1bn combined. Works due for sale included another Basquiat (“Versus Medici”, 1982, Sotheby’s $35m-$50m) and paintings by Monet, Picasso and Warhol. “The market is good and has never been more global. There is interest in every area of the 20th and 21st century,” says Melanie Clore, co-founder of Clore Wyndham art advisory.

“It wasn’t the perfume counter at Macy’s but what the fair lacked in urgency was made up for in measured conversations,” says New York gallerist James Cohan of Frieze New York (May 5-9), one of the first in-person art fairs to be held since the pandemic struck. Staggered entry into The Shed certainly made for a different and quiet event, according to exhibitors and visitors, which also required forms to complete in advance and proof of Covid-19 tests and vaccines.

Nonetheless, it all helped to sell more art again. Cohan brought a solo booth of American artist Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose new works explore white supremacy, and reported about a dozen sales ($5,000-$60,000). Of these, Cohan says, about a third were made on site to buyers new to the gallery. Recent works fared well elsewhere, including by George Condo, Rashid Johnson and Simone Leigh at Hauser & Wirth, and William Kentridge and Cassi Namoda at Goodman Gallery. The sense of gentle reunion spilled into the galleries in town too, says Naomi Baigell, managing director at the specialist lending group TPC Art Finance. “You could see people happily getting back into the habit of seeing art with people,” she says.

Thaddaeus Ropac will open a gallery in the latest art market hotspot of Seoul in October. The new space — 750 sq m on the first floor of the Fort Hill building — is Ropac’s first gallery in Asia. It is located in the high-spec Hannam-dong area, close to the city’s museums, where Pace gallery is also opening a new space later this year. “I was inspired to be in a country with such a sophisticated and longstanding art scene,” Ropac says. He had been looking in Hong Kong for a while but says he “never found a space that was right for us.” The Fort Hill building won two architectural awards when it was built in 2011, and Ropac’s new gallery boasts a balcony area that looks on to a sunken garden. Kyu Jin Hwang, the gallery’s director for Asia, will oversee the Seoul space and appoint a managing director in time for its opening.

Ropac has strong ties to South Korea, he says. In 2007, his artist Georg Baselitz had a solo show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Korea in Gwacheon, 15km south of Seoul, and the gallery more recently sold a painting by Adrian Ghenie into the museum of cosmetics company Amorepacific. Ropac also represents South Korea’s leading contemporary artist, Lee Bul, though he says his plans in Seoul are more to promote his European and American artists. The gallery participates this week at the Art Busan fair (May 13-16), with works by Baselitz, Donald Judd and Antony Gormley, among others.

The auction houses have begun to accept payment in cryptocurrencies for physical as well as digital art. This week, Sotheby’s is open to ether or bitcoin payments for Banksy’s protester painting “Love is in the Air” (2005, estimate $3m-$5m). Phillips has said that another Banksy — “Laugh Now Panel A”, made for the street artist’s Existencilism show in Los Angeles in 2002 — is also eligible for the same alternative currencies at its June 8 auction in Hong Kong (estimate $2.8m-$4.1m).

The auction houses do not need permission from the sellers, unless they want them to accept the sales proceeds in crypto, confirms Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby’s Europe managing director. It helps, though, that the US seller of “Love is in the Air” is on board, Fahey adds. The move is a drip-feed trial on a limited number of works, to test appetites and attract new buyers. The choice of the disruptive, anonymous Banksy by each auction house is a coincidence but seems a fitting place to start.

“We are hoping the sale will appeal to a new generation of crypto forward-thinking collectors who are as accustomed to digital evolution as they are to Banksy’s activist art,” Fahey says. Payments will be made via the Coinbase exchange. Sotheby’s will not accept cryptocurrency for its commission but Phillips will.

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