Works of art that made the news in 2021

From a $69m collage of digital images to the return of a Picasso nine years after a near-perfect heist

1. Digitised

Vignesh Sundaresan with the artwork up on his computer

Blockchain entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan with the digital artwork and non-fungible token (NFT) ‘Everydays: The First 5,000 Days’ by Beeple
(Image credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

The third-most expensive work ever sold by a living artist – after pieces by Jeff Koons and David Hockney – was auctioned at Christie’s in March. But even more than its $69.3m price tag, what made the sale really distinctive was its format.

Everydays is a collage of digital images created by an artist from South Carolina – Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple. Each day, using 3D software, Winkelmann creates an image: cartoony works packed with pop culture figures, social media memes and crude satire (Biden urinating on Trump, for instance). Everydays comprised 5,000 of them.

“I do view this as the next chapter of art history,” Beeple declared. Art critics did not share his enthusiasm. But then again art, as the saying goes, is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it, and the cryptocurrency tycoon Vignesh Sundaresan felt it was worth $69.3m. He only did so, however, thanks to the growth of a new innovation: the non-fungible token (NFT).

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NFTs use blockchain, the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies, to give a unique certificate to any given digital image. An NFT is like a modern version of a museum stamp, proving authenticity and listing previous owners. This has given the digital art market what it hitherto lacked: unique works and limited editions.

Everydays is, in fact, the tip of a vast new NFT market in digital collectibles – photos, games, music – which racked up $11bn in sales in the third quarter alone. Collins Dictionary chose NFT as its word of the year for 2021.

2. Looted

Two bronze sculptures hanging in a museum

Sculptures looted by British soldiers from the kingdom of Benin on display at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany
(Image credit: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images)

In 1897, British troops sacked the capital of the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria and looted its dazzling artistic treasures: the bronze sculptures, carvings and finely-wrought brass plaques known as the Benin Bronzes. This year, the debate about returning the looted items, now scattered across nearly 200 European and US collections, reached a new pitch, as plans advanced for a new art museum in Benin City.

In March, the University of Aberdeen agreed to return a bronze head. In October, Jesus College, Cambridge became the first institution to return one – a cockerel, or Okukor. And after the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and the Smithsonian in Washington began discussions about returning their bronzes, all eyes turned to the British Museum, which has by far the largest collection.

In October, it received a formal request for their return from Nigeria. It has now pledged to work to set up “permanent displays” of the objects in Benin City.

3. Sold

The artwork ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’ by Italian Sandro Botticelli

The artwork ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’ by Italian Sandro Botticelli, during a photocall at Sotheby’s auctioneers in London
(Image credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

The traditional art market bounced back from a pandemicinduced dip with some strong sales this year. The largest single sale was Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man holding a Roundel c.1480 (pictured), which sold for $92.2m to an unnamed collector from Asia at Sotheby’s New York.

The painting, which is thought to depict a member of the Medici court, became the second-most expensive work by an Old Master ever sold (after Salvator Mundi, c.1499-1510, controversially attributed to Leonardo).

Later in the year, a massive collection amassed by the property tycoon Harry Macklowe and his former wife Linda sold for $676m, also at Sotheby’s; Mark Rothko’s 8ft-tall painting No. 7 (1951) fetched $82.5m. Another notable sale was the $34.9m paid for Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo (Diego and I), 1949, a self-portrait featuring a small portrait of her husband Diego Rivera as a “third eye” in her forehead.

4. Recovered

Pablo Picasso in front of one of his artworks

Pablo Picasso in 1953
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2012, a thief broke into the National Gallery in Athens and carried out a near-perfect heist. The robber opened an unlocked door, setting off the alarm and tricking the gallery’s sole guard into deactivating it. He then broke in and took a Renaissance sketch, a windmill scene by Piet Mondrian and, most importantly, Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Woman – a 1939 cubist painting given by the artist to the Greek people in recognition of their resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

This summer, the Picasso was recovered. The works had been stolen not by a criminal gang but by George Sarmatzopoulos, a 49-year-old builder and self-professed “art freak”.

After he was arrested, he explained that he had begun to visit the National Gallery constantly for about six months leading up to the crime, until thoughts of stealing a work for himself “tormented” him, and “led me to make the biggest mistake of my life”. He spent around 50 nights hiding outside the gallery, observing the guards and security arrangements, before successfully carrying out the heist.

But in June this year, following a tip from a local newspaper, police caught up with Sarmatzopoulos – who made a full confession and led them to a ravine outside Athens where he had stashed the Mondrian and the Picasso; he had accidentally damaged and destroyed the sketch. He maintained that he had never meant to sell the paintings, and soon “longed to return them”. The National Gallery’s “greatest wound” has been “healed”, said Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni.

5. Toppled

The toppled statue of Edward Colston on display at a museum

The toppled statue of Edward Colston on display at the M Shed museum in Bristol
(Image credit: Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

On 7 June, almost exactly a year after it was toppled and thrown into a harbour during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston went on view at the M Shed museum in Bristol.

The statue was displayed on its back (because of damage done to its base), with its hands and face still sprayed red, alongside placards from the protest. An accompanying survey asked people what they thought should now happen to the statue.

It proved a very successful exhibit, attracting more than 80,000 visitors between June and the end of November. The survey has now closed; the We Are Bristol History Commission will report on its findings by early 2022. This month, four protesters known as “the Colston Four” were put on trial for causing criminal damage to the statue.

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