Seven artists achieved new sales benchmarks at Christie’s Contemporary Art auction in New York on Monday night, including Simone Leigh, a star of the 2022 Venice Biennale, and Robin F. Williams, a figurative painter still in his 30s.
Lively bidding from the Christie’s salesroom helped the auction house sell nearly $99 million worth of paintings and sculptures, with buyer fees. Experts said the gains were evidence of a growing preference among collectors for younger and more diverse artists than the market typically shows during one of the biggest sales weeks of the year.
Interest in female figurative painters who are not necessarily household names is on the rise for artists such as Danielle McKinney, Rebecca Ackroyd and Williams. Reviewing Williams’ exhibition of paintings at PPOW in 2017, Roberta Smith wrote that she was “extravagantly in-your-face in execution, style, image and social thrust. They focus on the impossible idealizations of women in both art and advertising” , with what she called “a new kind of cool but deep-rooted bravado.”
For artists like Ackroyd, it was also an auction debut — one that saw the painter’s painting “Garden Tender” of studded leather belts tied around a woman’s chest sell for more than double its estimated $56,700, including buyer fees. Lower estimates helped drive prices up.
More established artists such as the sculptor Simone Leigh have also made their mark. Leigh’s 2019 bronze work called “Stick” sold for $2.7 million with fees. It was a benchmark for the artist, who represented the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Diane Arbus, one of the most original American photographers, died in 1971, reached a peak of $1 million for a box of 10 photos.
Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui also achieved a sales peak with an installation called “Prophet” made of crown caps interwoven with copper wire. The assembly raised nearly $2.2 million in fees, more than double the high estimate.
“Christie’s is thrilled to have achieved a fantastic result in the first-ever evening sale that was made up of a majority of women,” said Isabella Lauria, who led the “21st Century” evening sale at Christie’s. The company sold nearly all of its 26 lots, though one was withdrawn before the sale. (A similar sale last November of 35 lots raised $114 million.)
“Auction houses shunned untested art, especially during evening sales,” said Natasha Degen, chair of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who believes tastes are changing. “Of the 26 lots, eight – almost a third – were by artists born in the 1980s or 1990s. Seven – more than a quarter – were made in 2019 or later.”
The engaged bidding was a change of pace after the company’s lackluster opening for the spring sales season last week. Solid sales but few fireworks for 16 paintings from the collection of former Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse had left the industry wondering if the market was cooling after the speculation frenzy of recent years that peaked during the sale of $ 1.5 billion for art owned last November by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.
“What’s most striking to me is that some of the artists who were at the center of the most heated bidding wars in the same auctions five years ago have now become sort of a solid, boring blue-chip for bidders,” said Tim Schneider, an art affairs editor at Artnet News who followed the sale. A Mark Bradford hammering $400,000 below his low estimate? A Rashid Johnson hammering away at his low estimate? Millionaires practically slapped each other for paying above the high estimate for these performers in May 2018.
But some blue-chip artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, still found an audience. Experts said Basquiat’s 1983 painting “El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)” — known as “History of the Black People” — exemplified his penchant for history paintings. After buyer’s fees, it sold for more than $67.1 million, making it the artist’s fourth most expensive work sold at auction. (The masterpiece, an untitled 1982 painting, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017.)
But interest in younger and more diverse artists was obvious.
“Historically, even the best-performing women in the market have been super-consolidated” around a few popular names,” Degen noted. “But it’s no longer just Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois.”