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Auction prices that take your breath away

Artists aged 40 and under have been creating buzz in the art world with high prices for their works - and some haven't even had a solo museum show

Matthew Wong's 'The Realm of Appearances' on display at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction in June in New York.

New York

PRICES that wildly exceed expectations give a jolt of excitement to art auctions. In the pre-pandemic days of live audiences, a gasp from the crowd might be heard.

Although much of the action has moved online these days, those moments can still send ripples through the art world.

In the past few years, a wave of energy has emanated from a group of 40-and-under contemporary artists whose works have fetched enormous prices soon after their first appearance in sales at the big auction houses - in some cases before they have had solo museum shows or passed other milestones on the way to a career in full flower.

In June 2018, Swiss artist Nicolas Party, now 40, was a figurative painter on the rise, known for surrealism-inflected landscapes and still lifes, when he made his first appearance at auction. His 2012 pencil-on-paper, "Still Life No 97", made a respectable US$11,128 at Christie's London.

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A year and a half - and a couple of decimal places - later, in November 2019, his 2016 pastel titled "Rocks" made US$1.1 million at Christie's Hong Kong.

The auction career of Matthew Wong, an American painter who died in October at age 35, began posthumously in May, when an untitled 2018 watercolour, estimated at US$10,000 to US$15,000, went for US$62,500 in a Sotheby's online sale.

A mere six weeks later, his 2018 oil called "The Realm of Appearances" sold for a staggering US$1.8 million at Sotheby's New York.

French artist Julie Curtiss has had a sharply upward trajectory too. Her freshman auction outing was the painting "Princess" (2016). It was estimated at US$6,000 to US$8,000, but eventually sold for US$106,250 at Phillips New York in the spring of 2019.

Six months later, her oil "Pas de Trois" (2018) went for US$423,000 at Christie's New York.

Some artists do not even need two appearances to shine: The Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, 36, debuted with the 2015 oil "The Conservationists," which was estimated at US$50,000 to US$70,000; it brought US$1.52 million in November 2019.

The Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, also 36, was another who found huge success at a first auction: Estimated at US$39,000 to US$65,000, his 2019 work "The Lemon Bathing Suit" went for more than US$880,000 in February at Phillips London.

Some better-known contemporary artists are not seeing these sky-high prices.

Take Mel Bochner, who, at 80, has been an acclaimed conceptual artist for decades, and whose work has appeared on the auction block for more than 30 years. His auction record is a comparatively low US$187,500.

David Galperin, head of Sotheby's contemporary art-evening auctions in New York, said it is not unheard-of for new names to attract attention. He pointed to the rise of Jean-Michel Basquiat's career in the 1980s.

What is different now, Mr Galperin said, is that there are more buyers with more money.

"The art market is so much bigger, and the buyers at that level are deeper and more global," he said.

Eye-popping prices are a result, especially when a signature work is on the market. Wong's "Realm of Appearances," for instance, is considered "the best of the best" of his works, Mr Galperin said.

It takes only two bidders working against each other to make a record, and the auction market is famously unpredictable. "It's not a meritocracy," said art adviser Liz Klein, of Reiss Klein Partners.

But those prices are not flukes, either. For "The Realm of Appearances," there was substantial interest as 59 bidders registered.

Fans of Wong's work will have another chance to bid on it Oct 7, when his "Shangri-La" (2017) is to be offered at Christie's. The estimate is US$500,000 to US$700,000.

Scarcity matters in this equation. Once an artist has died, "that means a finite pool of material", said Emily Kaplan, a senior specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie's.

Ms Kaplan said there was not a "one size fits all" model to explain different market flare-ups. But she did see an aesthetic commonality among many of the newly hot artists, who tend to depict things in the real world.

"In general, tastes have shifted to a figural style," she said, adding, "It's not just a pandemic phenomenon."

Ms Klein agreed, adding that the graphic painting style of Party and Curtiss had a wide appeal. And anyone who likes it can bid for it.

"The auction system is very democratic, and if you have the money, you can pay to play," she said, contrasting that with the galleries who develop and nurture artists' careers. They can be picky about whom they sell to, with an eye to placing an artist's work in a good collection.

In market terms, success breeds more success. Jean-Paul Engelen, a deputy chairman at Phillips auction house, said: "There's a whole group of collectors who look at a work only if it's of a certain value. People won't look at a Curtiss when it's US$5,000. But they will look when it's US$100,000."

He said that such interest also "means the gallery has done a good job" in terms of promoting their artist.

But high prices can have downsides, he added.

"Your strength is your weakness. It's great that your work is valuable. On the other hand, there's a danger element: If you're the flavour of this month, you may not be two months later."

Galleries are very wary of the same phenomenon. Marc Payot, the president of Hauser & Wirth, said his role was partly to give "protection" to young artists; he has represented Party since 2019.

Referring to museum shows or collections, he said: "When the market of a younger artist goes sky-high at auction, and there's no institutional support for that person, there's a danger that it's just speculation. We hope that a market grows over the long term, but steadily."

Some galleries have introduced contractual restrictions for buyers, to limit their ability to "flip" a work on the open market. They might require that the selling gallery be given the first crack at buying it back for a period of time.

The players who often do not directly benefit from skyrocketing prices on the secondary market, like at auctions, are the artists themselves.

The New York-based Curtiss, 37, said: "People say, 'You're doing well'; I say, 'Not as well as you think'."

She has been put in an unusual position: being famous for her auction prices.

"I would rather the coverage be about my work," she said. NYTIMES

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