A Matthew Wong Painting Just Sold at Christie’s for a Record $4.5 Million, Marking a Frenzied Turning Point in the Late Artist’s Market

The price soared above the painting's high estimate of $700,000.

Matthew Wong, Shangri La (2017). Image courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

The auction market for Matthew Wong, the Canadian painter who died by suicide at the age of 35 last year, has accelerated into surreal territory.

At Christie’s today, Wong’s painting Shangri-La (2017), shattered a high estimate of $700,000 to sell for $4.47 million. A Christie’s representative confirmed that 13  buyers were registered to bid on the work, but some could not even make an offer once the action took off.

Sotheby’s previously saw a quantum leap for Wong’s work in June, when The Realm of Appearances (2018) sold for $1.8 million, over a high estimate of $80,000—or 22 times above expectation. Since Wong’s death, a total of nine works, including Shangri La, have come to auction, according to the Artnet Price Database.

Matthew Wong, The Realm of Appearances (2015). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Matthew Wong, The Realm of Appearances (2015). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Wong was a self-taught painter, poet, and photographer who frequently used social media to engage audiences about his developing painting practice. By sharing the results of his own experimentation with painting he drew a loyal following online.

One of his followers was veteran dealer John Cheim, who connected Wong with Matthew Higgs, director of the nonprofit art space White Columns. Wong soon had a studio in Edmonton where he delved into his practice, creating atmospheric landscapes, while touting his self-taught status.

After participating in several group shows (Shangri La appeared at Paris’s Galerie Frank Elbaz), Wong had his solo debut at New York’s Karma gallery in March 2018, where the work received rave reviews.

Matthew Wong, Mood Room (2018) at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Matthew Wong, Mood Room (2018) at Phillips 20th century and contemporary art evening Sale. Image courtesy of Phillips.

When Wong died, he left behind a suite of melancholy paintings in his studio—a complete group of works that would form the basis of a final solo show at Karma, in November 2019.

Theoretically none of the works were for sale and many observers found it distasteful to participate in the artist’s market so soon after his death. “But collectors with an eye toward speculation can only be held back on moral grounds for so long,” wrote Artnet News’s Nate Freeman.

By February, Freeman reported receiving a text message from an art advisor saying, “I have a client who’s going to have a heart attack if he doesn’t get [a work by Wong]—he will pay, like, any price.” And by then, the “flippers” were out of the gate in full force.

Matthew Wong outside his solo show at Karma in 2018. Photograph courtesy Matthew Higgs

Matthew Wong outside his solo show at Karma in 2018. Photograph courtesy Matthew Higgs

One owner consigned a small watercolor to Sotheby’s two years after buying it at the artist’s first show at Karma in 2018—and just months after his tragic death. It was the first time one of Wong’s works went to auction and Sotheby’s gave the work top billing at its online contemporary art day sale.

The watercolor sold for $62,500 compared with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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