Despite a rather fragmented auction month in March, the market balance seems to be restored after a difficult year in 2020. The emerging scene remained under the spotlight whilst most blue chip artists achieved satisfying results, thus, narrowing the gap between the two segments compared with last year. These positive signs let us hope for a better year for 2021, although it is still too early to draw firm conclusions. To better navigate through the numerous contemporary auctions that took place last month, we grouped the results into four artist categories: market stars, emerging talents, mid-career/rediscovered profiles and blue chip artists.
1) Market stars
The young stars who reigned on the 2020 auction market confirmed their position this March with a few outstanding results. The biggest of them all is undoubtedly Matthew Wong, who accumulated three sales above $1 million. The first one is a $1.66 million painting sold at Phillips New York at the beginning of the month, closely followed by another large canvas that was acquired for $2.19 million at Christie’s New York. The last result is a $3.75 million painting bought at Christie’s London's evening sale later that month.
Amoako Boafo is another young artist who drew significant attention last year with a series of remarkable auction sales. Although no major large-scale painting was presented this March, the artist recorded a few consistent — and even increasing — results. For instance, a mid-sized artwork almost two times smaller than his all-time record of $1.14 million was sold for an impressive $760,000 at Christie’s London. A more unusual painting was acquired at Sotheby’s London for $555,000 at the end of the month.
Last but not least, Salman Toor was among the most sought-after rising artists last year, with a critically acclaimed show at the Whitney Museum and a series of excellent results at auction. The ascending trend on the artist’s market was confirmed this March when he made his second best price with a mid-sized canvas that was acquired for $612,500 at Christie’s New York. A less typical early painting was later bought for a consistent $445,000 at Christie’s New York (check out our last article on Salman Toor's rise to fame).
2) Emerging talents
The young emerging scene was in great shape as this category recorded the most impressive rises in spite of their low estimates. Among this market segment, figurative women painters were by far the best performing profiles. The French artist Claire Tabouret even broke her auction record with the sale of a large-scale canvas for almost $860,000, followed by a smaller painting which was acquired a few days later for $155,000, both at Christie’s London.
In the same figurative vein, the American painter Sharah Hughes remained successful after an excellent 2020 year with a $410,000 painting acquired at Christie’s London. Thanks to this sale, she recorded her second best all-time result this month. In a similar price range, Issy Wood’s auction debut made a strong impression at Christie’s' evening sale in London. Known for her velvet paintings, the American artist sold her first canvas at auction for a remarkable $345,000.
Two more young figurative female painters were under the spotlight: Emily Mae Smith and Ewa Juszkiewicz. The first artist sold a canvas for nearly as much as her previous auction record, although this work was smaller and aesthetically inferior. Her painting was bought at Christie’s New York for $350,000. As for Juszkiewicz, the Polish painter made her first appearance in a major auction house, Sotheby’s London, where she recorded a remarkable $150,000 sale, thus multiplying her low estimate five-fold.
3) Mid-career/rediscovered profiles
African-American artists were overrepresented within this segment last month. Conceptual artist Adam Pendleton broke his auction record on Loic Gouzer’s auction app Fair Warning. A piece from his « OK BLACK DADA OK » series was acquired on the platform for a whopping $333,500, six months ahead of his first major MoMA retrospective. This sale probably marks the beginning of a bull run on the artist’s market. In the abstract genre, rediscovered black artist Ed Clark also made his best auction result yet with an early painting acquired for $746,000 at Sotheby’s New York.
In a more figurative style, Lynette Yiadome-Boakye sold a large-scale canvas for a respectable $710,000 at Christie’s London's evening sale. Her American counterpart Nicole Eisenman did even better with her first painting over a million dollars. Indeed, her large-scale canvas « Mermaid Catch » fetched $1.18 million at Christie’s London.
Eisenman was not the only performing figurative artist in her mid-career this March. Daniel Richter, who already had his most commercially successful year in 2020, came out really strong in 2021 with two major paintings selling above $500,000. The first of them was even his second best result yet. It was acquired for an impressive $940,000 at Christie’s London, soon followed by the second piece which sold for a respectable $655,000. This shows that the glass ceiling that prevailed on the artist’s market since the 2006-2007 period has been broken, which leads us to believe that even higher results should occur in the future.
4) Blue chip artists
Established artists made a remarkable comeback in March after a disappointing year in 2020. While most blue chip painters sold many works in the low range of their estimate last fall, they actually performed quite well last month at the three main auction houses. The most talked-about example is undoubtedly Basquiat’s Warrior which reached $41.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. It became the most expensive piece of western art ever sold in Asia. Another piece by the American artist sold for twice its high estimate at Christie’s London ($12.53 million), thus breaking the record for a painting from his latest period (1987-1988).
Contemporary legends such as Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol also performed relatively well. Apart from his « Submarine Christmas Tree » mobile which sold above its high estimate at $9 million, Calder’s gouaches fetched impressive prices at auction this month. For instance, his 1971 « Tricolor Onion » paper was acquired for $189,000 at Sotheby’s New York, almost five times higher than its low estimate. As for Warhol, a set of ten prints representing endangered species was acquired for a record-breaking $4 million, almost twelve times higher than its low estimate. Moreover, two mid-sized Marilyn Monroe and dollar paintings reached interesting prices at auction, selling for $1.29 million and $603,000 respectively, both above their high estimates.
Asian artists also had the wind in their sails. As an example, Yayoi Kusama recorded some remarkable sales in March, although no major paintings were presented at auction. Her 1989 « Dots-Universe » canvas achieved an outstanding $805,000, thus tripling its low estimate. Another work from the same year — although much smaller — which belongs to the Infinity Nets series, multiplied its low estimate four-fold. It was acquired for $435,000 at Sotheby’s London. Kusama’s fellow Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara was in a similar situation this month: no important pieces at auction, but a few exceptional results, mostly for works on paper. A small drawing even fetched $555,000 at Sotheby’s London, a price almost five times higher than its low estimate.
Last but not least, Banksy’s stellar rise continued this year as he almost doubled his previous auction record. Indeed, his oil on canvas « Game Changer » — more than four times smaller than his famous « Devolved Parliament » painting — was acquired for a whopping $23.11 million at Christie’s London. However, it is important to note that this sale was a charity auction for British hospitals, limiting the importance of the result.
As a conclusion, the market came out much stronger in march than it was in the last few months of 2020 especially. This time, trendy figurative painters were not the only ones under the spotlight, as most blue chip artists achieved satisfying results as well. It seems like historical European and American contemporary collectors, who had pulled back from the market last year, finally made their comeback. However, the shift of the market towards Asia was also clearer than ever this March. The American owner of Basquiat’s Warrior’s decision to present it in Asia instead of New York highlighted this phenomenon.
Despite a satisfying auction month, it is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions. The following spring and summer sales will tell if we are right to hope for a market recovery.