Who Were the Breakout Stars of New York’s Spring Art Auctions? We Crunched the Numbers to Find Out
Data shows which new entrants to Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips contemporary sales sparked the fiercest bidding in New York.
When it comes to auctions, estimates and sales prices aren’t the only measure of performance. We also learn something about artists’ perceived value in the trade based on which houses are willing to consign their work—as well as where in the auction calendar it’s offered. And there is no clearer indicator of prestige (and expected profit) than a spot in one of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips’s New York contemporary art sales in May or November. Think of it like a first or second row seat at the Oscars—you’re only there because someone in the know thinks you are likely to win big.
For a strong hint at which artists the American auction market sees as candidates to be the Next Big Thing, then, we crunched the numbers from this spring’s marquee evening and daytime contemporary auctions. The goal was to answer two questions: First, who graduated to primetime by debuting at one of the three major houses’ sales last week? Second, within that group, whose work outperformed its pre-sale expectations most dramatically?
The answers may surprise you.
The chart below shows the top 10 newest entrants to the biggest US sales cycle—ranked by whose work outperformed its pre-sale low estimate most dramatically.
Notably, the only certified star on the list is Amy Sherald, whose official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama added jet fuel to a career that recently landed her with international mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. Her painting of a hoodied man against a robin’s egg blue background, Innocent You, Innocent Me (2016), fetched $350,000 at Christie’s day sale, far exceeding its presale estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. But that result only places Sherald third in the rankings.
Immediately above her is the late Margaret Kilgallen, whose multi-panel painting Untitled (Salt, Sweet, CH, Wheet) (1999) moved the decimal point back from its $40,000 low estimate by selling for $447,000 at the same auction. Swiss artist Nicolas Party occupies first place thanks to his $608,000 Landscape (2015), which shattered its $100,000-to-$150,000 presale estimate at Phillips.
Also deserving special mention is ceramicist Shio Kusaka, the artist with the most works on offer among those who made their first appearance in a major New York sale this cycle. (The only other artist consigned multiple times was Party, whose second work, Still Life No 107 (2012), sold for $25,000 against a low estimate of $6,000, at the same Phillips sale as his higher-priced Landscape.) Of the five Kusaka works offered last week, each outperformed its low estimate by an amount ranging between $2,000 (for (face 3) (2013) at Christie’s contemporary day sale) and $90,000 (for (Line 65) (2017) at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale).
An Alternate View
The results are slightly different if we measure by the percentage increase from the low estimate to the final price, rather than by sheer dollar value increase. The new leader becomes New York-based painter Julie Curtiss, whose 1,771 percent leap over the low estimate for the price of her work Princess earned her the “Strongest Speculation Magnet” award in our itemized recap of this spring’s New York auctions. (The 14-by-18-inch canvas was estimated to sell for between $6,000 to $8,000; it fetched $106,250.)
If you’re wondering why it’s worth considering both metrics, remember those 3,000 percent price increases at auction during the Zombie Formalism boom, when early paintings sold out of the artist’s studio for $5,000 could rocket to $150,000 at auction. Such a sure sign of speculation could be missed if too many already-anointed exceptions like Amy Sherald are in the mix, modestly outperforming their uncharacteristically robust low estimates.
Still, it is notable that eight of the 10 artists remain the same in either analysis. Only Argentinian painter César Paternosto and Arte Povera sculptor Marisa Merz, the last two top performers by dollar value, exit the list if we judge by percentage increase instead. In that case, the duo is replaced by the late American figurative painter Will Barnet (who died in 2012) and the late conceptual artist Noah Davis (who died in 2015).
The ascension of the latter two artists also illustrates why sorting by percentage increase seems somewhat less meaningful than sorting by surplus dollars pledged. Barnet’s 625 percent rise launched off a low estimate of just $3,000, while Davis’s 475 percent rise launched off a low estimate of only $10,000. Their performance, in other words, benefitted from the fact that their works began with relatively low expectations. Paternosto and Merz’s works, on the other hand, both coaxed bidders to pay in the neighborhood of $50,000 more than the low estimates of $40,000 and $30,000, respectively—sums still more than double expectations.
The more important takeaway, though, is that by two different metrics, the bulk of this list stays consistent. Which means that, even though we can’t foresee the future, we can at least have some confidence about which directions the market is looking for it.
Methodology: This article examines sales of fine-art lots by artists whose appearance at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips’s New York contemporary sales during the week of May 13, 2019 qualified as their first ever in one of these three houses’ premier May or November auctions. For this analysis, artists were still considered eligible for inclusion if their work had previously been offered at a contemporary sale at the New York location of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips in any other month except May or November, as those two sales cycles are recognized as carrying the most prestige in the US market. An important caveat: These figures reflect winning bids, but late payments and outright defaults cannot be detected in the data, meaning results may not always reflect how much money actually changed hands. All sales values are denominated in US dollars and include buyer’s premiums. All data comes courtesy of the artnet Price Database and artnet Analytics Reports.
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