Hot Lots: 7 Works That Completely Upended Expectations at Last Week’s Modern and Contemporary Art Day Sales in New York

There was heated competition last week for both rising new stars and established blue-chip names alike.

Milo Matthieu, Los Siete Infantes (2021). Estimate: $15,000 - 20,000. Sold for: $176,400. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Marquee evening sales may get the most eyeballs, but don’t sleep on the day sales. While these workmanlike auctions may not deliver the eye-popping sums of their nocturnal siblings, they offer substantial insight not only into the current state of the market, but also where it’s headed—and which artists and bodies of work are attracting notice.

We took a close look at the lots that popped among hundreds offered during day sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips in New York last week. Some of these names will be unfamiliar; others are well established but suggest a new depth of demand. All confirm what auction experts and dealers have been telling us for the last 18 months or so: that many new and established collectors alike are flush with cash despite (or because of) the lockdown—and looking to funnel that money into art.


Milo Matthieu
Los Siete Infantes (2021)

Installation view of Phillips New Now sale. Courtesy of Phillips.

Installation view of Phillips New Now sale, with Matthieu’s work at left. Courtesy of Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New Now, Tuesday, September 28

Estimate: $15,000 to $20,000

Sold for: $176,400

Bidders went gangbusters for this painting by Brooklyn-based artist Milo Matthieu, which sold for nearly nine times its high estimate. The Haitian American artist’s works recall the psychic autonomism of the Surrealists and engage with philosophical questions of identity and self-perception.

While this is technically Matthieu’s live auction debut, another 2021 painting, Aged in Harmony, was a top seller in the second edition of curator-dealer Destinee Ross-Sutton’s “Say It Loud” online sale at Christie’s in August. (The organizers of the sale declined to share the exact results, but the work carried an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000.)

The price of Los Siete Infantes might have been pushed up because of the sale’s charitable element: the seller promised to donate a portion of the proceeds to Project Backboard to help build a basketball court in Haiti and contribute to earthquake relief efforts. 


Marcellina Akpojotor
Here and Now II (2019)

Marcellina Akpojotor, Here and Now II (2019). Estimate: $6,000 - 8,000. Sold for: $47,880. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Marcellina Akpojotor, Here and Now II (2019). Estimate: $6,000–8,000. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New Now, Tuesday, September 28

Estimate: $6,000 to $8,000

Sold for: $47,880

There has been a lot of hype surrounding rising star artists from Ghana (see: Amoako Boafo, Ibrahim Mahama), but Nigeria is also drawing attention as a hotbed of artistic talent. One of its fresh-on-the-scene figures is artist Marcellina Akpojotor, who apprenticed with the celebrated painter and printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya after studying art and industrial design in Lagos. The artist’s works mix traditional painting techniques with collage, incorporating fabric scraps she collects from local tailors, and often depict empowered women. 

The consignor of this 2019 work acquired it directly from Lagos’s Rele Gallery, which has represented the artist since 2017. While the realized price is lower than some of the other lots mentioned on this list, the work defied expectations and sold for six times its $8,000 high estimate, making her an artist to watch for sure.


 Michel Majerus
Nothing is Permanent (2000)

Michel Majerus, Nothing is permanent (2000). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Michel Majerus, Nothing is permanent (2000). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s, New York, September 30

Estimate: $100,000 to $150,000

Sold for: $600,800

Almost two decades after the Luxembourg-born artist Michel Majerus tragically died at 35 in a plane crash, his work is being embraced by the market ahead of a solo exhibition at the ICA Miami in 2022. Over the past three months, his auction record was reset twice. The latest record-breaker, sold last week, was a massive (8.5 feet tall and almost 15 feet wide) painting that brings together abstraction and text, and whose title feels especially timely today. The artist’s previous auction high of $554,147 was achieved just three months ago in London, also at Sotheby’s. Both record paintings were sold by a New York Charitable Family Trust, an entity linked to Jerry Speyer, the real estate mogul and chairman emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art. Several paintings have sold privately at similar price points, according to art advisor Allan Schwartzman. “He is a significant artist, whose work was prescient, and if the market is catching up with that, such a correction is long overdue,” he said.


Suzan Frecon
Pompeiian persian (2010)

Suzan Frecon, Pompeiian persian (2010). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Auction: Contemporary Curated, Sotheby’s New York, September 30

Estimate: $80,000 to $120,000

Sold for: $252,000

This quiet, contemplative abstraction set a new auction record for the 80-year-old New York painter. It’s made of two stacked canvases, measuring in total nine feet tall and seven feet wide. The canvas was purchased from a 2010 exhibition of the artist’s work at her gallery David Zwirner, and passed through San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts before landing at Sotheby’s. Frecon’s previous auction high, $87,500, was set in 2017, making the latest price a symbol of a steady incline rather than a bubble. She was among a number of established female artists—including Amy Sillman, Louise Nevelson, and Genieve Figgis—with strong performances last week.


Philip Guston
The Clock II (1957)

Philip Guston, The Clock II (1957). Image courtesy Christie's.

Philip Guston, The Clock II (1957). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Postwar to Present,Christie’s New York, October 1

Estimate: $280,000 to $350,000

Sold for: $2.7 million

This Philip Guston may be a far cry from the artist’s existing record ($25.9 million set in 2013), but it’s a keen example of a “Hot Lot” for the purposes of this column. Despite the modest estimate, it soared to a final price that was more than seven times expectations. The painting last appeared at auction more than 40 years ago, in 1980; the consignor had owned it since 1983. Guston’s later work is currently the subject of a major show at megadealer Hauser & Wirth in New York, but it’s his earlier abstract work, like this example, that has dominated his top auction prices over the past two decades.


Emily Mae Smith
Hotline (2017)

Emily Mae Smith Hotline (2017). Image courtesy Christie's.

Emily Mae Smith Hotline (2017). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Postwar to Present, Christie’s New York, October 1

Estimate: $30,000 to $50,000

Sold for: $112,500

Brooklyn-based painter Emily Mae Smith is a prime example of a young artist whose figurative painting and unique style—not to mention her ubiquitous avatar, an anthropomorphic broomstick—have inspired a devoted, some might say rabid, following among collectors.

Hotline (2017), which more than doubled expectations at Christie’s, is now her 11th most expensive painting out of 27 results listed in the Artnet Price Database. The record is $1.6 million, paid for Broom Life (2014) at Phillips Hong Kong in June. (The buyer of that work was the Shanghai collector YiXiao Ding, who posted on Instagram ahead of the sale: “Plz don’t fight with me tmr for this EMS. We are in LOVE,” followed by three crying-laughing-squinting emojis.) The high estimate for that work was just over $77,000.


Lynda Benglis
Devaux (1987)

Lynda Benglis, <i>Devaux</i> (1987). Image courtesy of Christie's.

Lynda Benglis, Devaux (1987). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Auction: Postwar to Present, Christie’s, New York, October 1

Estimate: $80,000 to $120,000

Sold for: $450,000

Not only did this lot sell for more than three times the high estimate, it also set a new record for the sculptor. The last time it was offered for sale back in 2003 (when the most recent owner acquired it), it fetched $13,145 (estimate: $8,000 to $12,000), according to the Artnet Price Database.

Lest you think only the young guns are seeing their auction records broken multiple times a year these days, this latest price exceeded Benglis’s previous record of $378,000 set at Sotheby’s New York less than four months ago. That work, Silver Spur, hails from the same year as Devaux, though it sported a slightly higher estimate at $120,000 to $180,000. The latest work’s price may be a case of a lower starting point sparking even more heated competition, as sale head Isabella Lauria noted that “top-quality artworks at attractive estimates” played a role in the sale’s success.

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