Hot Lots: 7 On-the-Rise Artists Whose Work Wildly Exceeded Expectations at Auction This Summer

Even during an unusual auction season, a number of budding superstars achieved surprisingly high results.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker holding court over Sotheby's global e-auctions. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

This year’s series of market-setting auctions was not the typical one week-affair of jam-packed sales rooms followed by high-octane dinners and parties. And have no doubt, such weeks, they are missed.

But after a months-long delay, the triumvirate of major houses managed a fairly productive auction season, even if sales are down significantly from a year ago, when in-person events were still a thing.

Within that modest success, we saw a few artists break new records during the day sales and speciality auctions. Though the next-day auctions sometimes fly under the radar, it’s during these sales where the evening-sale superstars of tomorrow are made. So, let’s take a look at the hot lots that stood out amid a sea of works offered during this most unusual of auction seasons.


Matthew Wong, Warmth (2017)

Matthew Wong, <em>Warmth</em>, 2017. Photo courtesy Phillips.

Matthew Wong, Warmth, 2017. Photo courtesy Phillips.

Auction: Phillips Hong Kong, 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, July 8, 2020

Estimate: $51,611 to $77,417

Sold For: $338,700

Matthew Wong died in October 2019, leaving behind a powerful body of work—undulating landscapes, brightly colored still life paintings, playful gouache on paper drawings—that sadly will no longer be expanded upon. And so there was a considerable amount of anticipation when his first major work came to auction: The Realm of Appearances (2018) a five-by-seven-foot painting depicting an expressive fire-orange flower-bursting meadow, that was first shown at his debut show at Karma, in the East Village. Estimated to sell for $80,000, it went for $1.8 million, more than 20 times its high estimate.

But the real indication that buyers will be after the work of Matthew Wong for some time is Warmth (2017), a much smaller work that came up for auction nearly two weeks after the record-breaker. Though the work was just two feet tall, it spurred feverish bidding in Hong Kong and landed at $338,700 (with fees), nearly five times the high estimate. Look for more to come to the market this fall—in fact, the painting by the dearly departed artist that Phillips has slated for its September New Now sale is installed in Southampton, with a $50,000 to $70,000 estimate.


Eddie Martinez, Florida #2 (Mailbox Margie) (2018)

Eddie Martinez, <em>Florida #2 (Mailbox Margie)</em> (2018). Photo courtesy Christie's.

Eddie Martinez, Florida #2 (Mailbox Margie) (2018). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, July 10, 2020

Estimate: $309,653 to $490,284

Sold For: $1,068,949

This wasn’t a record-breaker for Martinez—that came in 2019, when High Flying Bird (2018) sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for just over $2 million. But a similar result at the same auction house in the same city means that Martinez can consistently sell in the seven figures, a solid stat for any mid-career painter.

Just be wary of the flippers: Florida #2 (Mailbox Margie) was bought by an Asian collector out of Timothy Taylor’s booth at Frieze London at the end of 2018, and was consigned to auction just over a year later.


Simone Leigh, Providence (2017)

Simone Leigh, <em>Providence</em> (2017). Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

Simone Leigh, Providence (2017). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Day Auction, June 30, 2020

Estimate: $60,000 to $80,000

Sold For: $237,500

Work by Simone Leigh has been seen recently on the High Line park in New York, where her 16-foot-tall Brick House loomed over the city for all passersby to see.

She’s been seen at the Whitney Biennial, where she was a star of the 2019 survey. And soon enough, she’ll be seen at a location of the global gallery Hauser & Wirth, after the mega-gallery announced last January that it would add her to the roster.

So, naturally, a few auction consignments would make sense, and her work has performed consistently well over the last few months. In addition to the $237,500 price for Providence, a work from the Faurschou collection sold at Christie’s for $252,397 in July. And a tiny two-inch figurine went for a whopping $75,000 Swann Galleries in June.


Titus Kaphar, Still Hungry! (2008)

Titus Kaphar, <em>Still Hungry!</em> (2008). Photo courtesy Christie's.

Titus Kaphar, Still Hungry! (2008). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s New York Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale, July 10, 2020

Estimate: $100,000 to $150,000

Sold For: $350,000

Titus Kaphar is an artist not especially focused on the market. He’s much more devoted on the activist element of his large-scale, history-busting paintings—as well as on the community engagement of NXTHVN, his artist incubator and creative hub in New Haven, Connecticut.

But this spring, Gagosian announced that he would join the roster (while also putting its global weight behind expanding NXTHVN’s vision) and since then, five paintings have appeared at auction. Still Hungry! more than doubled the high mark, indicating that Kaphar’s prices may now exist in a different bracket. Before the suite of five paintings came on the block this summer, his record price was just $81,000.


Amoako Boafo, Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man) (2018) and Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man) (2018)

Amoako Boafo, <em>Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man)</em> (2018). Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

Amoako Boafo, Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man) (2018). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Day Sale, Online Auction, July 30, 2020

Estimate: $7,821 to $10,428

Sold For: $114,065

There is much to be said of the remarkably quick rise of the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, and much of the phenomenon’s DNA can be found in these two tiny little cards.

They were both consigned by the same collector, who bought them from the artist, and both were slotted in an otherwise ho-hum online sale, where they were expected to bring in over $10,000—a huge amount for a one-foot-by-one-foot work on paper. Instead, they went for $114,065 each, making them more than the price of a primary market full-size painting.


Mequitta Ahuja, Generator (2010)

Mequitta Ahuja, <em>Generator</em> (2010). Photo courtesy Christie's.

Mequitta Ahuja, Generator (2010). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s Online, First Open: Post-War & Contemporary Art Online, July 28, 2020

Estimate: $19,419 to $25,893

Sold For: $105,191

New to the auction landscape is Mequitta Ahuja, a Baltimore-based artist of South Asian and African-American descent who first made a splash in February when a painting in the Christie’s London online sale deep into the proceedings surprised most by selling for $78,000, above a $10,000 estimate. By July, she was slotted first in the sale, and inched her record price up into the six figures.


Vivian Springford, Untitled (Tanzania Series) (1972)

Vivian Springford, Untitled (Tanzania Series) (1972). Photo courtesy Phillips.

Auction: Phillips New York 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session, July 2, 2020

Estimate: $60,000 to $80,000

Sold For: $106,250

Springford was largely unknown at the time of her death at the age of 90, in 2003. But late in her life, art dealer Gary Snyder became a champion of her distinctive work: color field orbs inspired by Eastern religion and calligraphy, made over decades spent alone in her apartment.

Since Almine Rech picked up representation of the estate in 2018, the works have been bubbling up at auction, and prices have gone up from $22,000 in February 2019 to the six figures by the end of the year. As long as the woozy, captivating Easter Egg-like paintings come to auction, you can bet on the prices to increase.

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