Art Market

8 Artists Who Had Breakout Moments at Auction This Fall

Benjamin Sutton
Oct 30, 2020 2:38PM

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Black Stripes on White, 2019. Courtesy of Phillips.

Titus Kaphar, Page 4 of Jefferson’s “Farm Book,” 2018. Courtesy of Sothebys.

This fall auction season has been anything but business as usual. Unmoored from the usual calendar of sales by the pandemic, resulting economic downturn, and unease in anticipation of the United States presidential election, auction houses Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s packed most of their contemporary art auctions across Hong Kong, London, and New York into a single month starting in late September, with mixed results.

Major lots tagged with seven- and eight-figure estimates routinely struggled to reach them, with notable exceptions including Banksy’s take on Claude Monet’s water lilies and a 67-million-year-old T. rex named Stan. On several occasions, consignors got cold feet and pulled works by proven market stars mid-sale. And guarantors took home their fair share of big-ticket works after bidding stalled. Amid a prevailing mood of unease, many collectors opted to forgo major art purchases. But at lower price points, works by emerging and resurgent artists were setting off bidding wars that sent them well beyond their estimates. Below, we look at some of the artists who made a splash during the fall sales.

Firelei Baez, Megan (lugar a dudas), 2017. Courtesy of Phillips.


The “New Now” series of auctions at Phillips is a closely watched testing ground for younger artists’ secondary-market appeal. The fifth lot in the September 30th edition of the auction, Firelei Báez’s Megan (lugar a dudas) (2017), was just the third work by the Dominican, New York–based artist ever to come to auction. It had been tagged with a relatively conservative presale estimate of $10,000 to $15,000, which it swiftly eclipsed, eventually selling for $46,250—a new auction record for Báez that held for all of two days. On October 2nd, the new work Slooshying the Sluice of Lovely Sounds. Oh, it Was Gorgeousness and Gorgeosity Made Flesh (2020) was offered at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sale, with an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. It more than quadrupled that high estimate, eventually selling for $56,700.

Those successive records, both set by relatively small works on paper melding elements of portraiture and dazzling abstraction, seem destined to be smashed in turn whenever one of Báez’s spectacular paintings on canvas comes to auction. At The Armory Show in March, James Cohan sold one large canvas for $170,000.

Explore more works by Firelei Báez.

Javier Calleja, Trovador, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Javier Calleja, Not Fat, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Combine the kawaii figures of Yoshitomo Nara and the exaggerated, gleaming eyes of Margaret Keane, and you’d get Javier Calleja, the hugely popular Spanish artist whose paintings, works on paper, and limited-edition vinyl toys have spawned a thriving secondary market since first appearing at auction in April 2019. And while his toys have topped out just above $10,000 at auction for now, prices for his prints, drawings, and paintings keep rising. At Sotheby’s October 7th day sale of contemporary art in Hong Kong, two works by Calleja vastly outstripped expectations: The painting Trovador (2017) sold for HK$693,000 (US$89,000), well above its high estimate of HK$400,000 (US$51,000); and the large work on paper Not Fat (2017), which features a smiling figure with large, cat-like eyes wearing a black shirt featuring the titular phrase, more than tripled its high estimate of HK$250,000 (US$32,000) to sell for HK$781,200 (US$100,000), good for Calleja’s second-highest auction result. Over the summer, at a Christie’s sale in Hong Kong, his 2018 painting What? achieved more than seven times its high estimate of HK$500,000 (US$64,000), selling for HK$3.7 million (US$480,000).

Demand for Calleja’s work has grown exponentially over the past five years, according to Artsy data. The number of inquiries on his works on the platform year over year more than quadrupled from 2016 to 2017; nearly tripled from 2018 to 2019; and is on track to increase fivefold in 2020 compared to last year.

Explore more works by Javier Calleja.

Titus Kaphar, Alternate Endings, 2016. Courtesy of Phillips.

Titus Kaphar, Fidelity, 2010. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

This has been a banner year for Titus Kaphar, who split with longtime dealer Jack Shainman and joined powerhouse gallery Gagosian in the spring, and opened his first solo show there in the fall to critical acclaim. Prior to his official debut, Gagosian offered one of Kaphar’s new works through its “Artist Spotlight” series of single-work online sales, Braiding possibility (2020), priced at $300,000.

The gallery changeup (and, presumably, the accompanying uptick in primary-market prices) has been paralleled by a surging secondary market. Since Kaphar’s work first appeared at auction in 2013, it had never gone under the hammer more than three times in a given year. Thus far in 2020, his work has appeared at auction 11 times—including five times in the past month. One of those works, a large 2018 oil and tar painting in the style of an Old Master portrait, nearly tripled its high estimate of $300,000 at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sale on October 2nd, selling for $854,900 and setting a new record for Kaphar’s work. Later in October, another of his riffs on historical painting genres, Alternate Endings (2016), more than quintupled its high estimate of £80,000 ($103,000) to sell for £466,200 ($604,000) at a Phillips evening sale, good for his second-highest auction result.

According to Artsy data, demand for Kaphar’s work has been steadily rising since 2017. There have been nearly 10 times as many inquiries on his work on the platform thus far in 2020 than there were in 2017.

Explore more works by Titus Kaphar.

Firenze Lai, The Colleagues, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Hong Kong–based painter Firenze Lai’s work made its auction debut this summer and has hit the auction block three more times since, selling each time for at least double the high estimate. That first lot, Happily Ever After (2013)—in which a couple, arms interlocked, walks through an ominous, purgatorial landscape of dark reds and purples—achieved HK$2.6 million (US$338,000) against a high estimate of HK$1.2 million (US$154,000). Earlier this month, her large painting The Colleagues (2017) kicked off Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong. The melancholy composition, a largely black-and-white interior scene featuring two figures embracing and edged in streaks of purple, yellow, and blue, eclipsed its high estimate—HK$1.2 million again—and eventually sold for HK$3 million (US$390,000), smashing that earlier record for Lai’s work.

Explore more works by Firenze Lai.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe. Old Town Boy, 2018. Courtesy of Phillips.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Flower Boy, 2019. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s work entered the secondary market with a bang just four months ago—and just six months after he opened his first solo show in the U.S.—when his superb portrait painting Shade of Black (2018) blasted past its high estimate of $30,000 to eventually sell for $250,000 at a Phillips evening sale. That startling result, still the record for his work at auction, has opened the floodgates. The Ghanaian painter’s works have come to auction six times since, selling for at least twice their high estimates each time, and often much more.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Just Do It, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Girl in White Dress, 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

On October 8th, for instance, Bonhams offered Bold and Vibrant (2017), a portrait painting with collage elements, in its sale of modern and contemporary African art with a high estimate of £10,000 ($12,000). The work surpassed that estimate six times over, selling for £65,062 ($83,000), a huge overperformance that is nonetheless Quaicoe’s lowest auction result. On October 2nd, Sotheby’s offered his 2018 portrait Girl in White Dress during its “Contemporary Curated” sale with a high estimate of $60,000, which it more than doubled before selling for $138,600, good for his second-highest auction result to date.

Explore more works by Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe.

Robert Nava, Maybe Metatron, 2017. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

Like Quaicoe, Robert Nava’s work entered the secondary market in head-turning fashion at the same Phillips sale, when his 2019 diptych The Tunnel more than doubled its high estimate of $60,000 to sell for $162,500. Since then, six more pieces by the Indiana-born, Brooklyn-based artist have come to auction—three works on paper and three paintings—and all but one have outperformed their high estimates. His graffiti-inflected aesthetic evokes the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eddie Martinez, while his choice of childlike imagery (from tigers and sharks to ghosts and dragons) is distinctive. Most recently, at a Christie’s day sale last week, his painting Maybe Metatron (2017) surpassed its high estimate of £50,000 ($65,000) to sell for £85,000 ($111,000).

This spike in auction activity follows a similar surge in demand for the artist’s work on Artsy. According to platform data, from 2018 to 2019, inquiries on Nava’s works on Artsy rose 39x; they’re currently on pace to grow by two-thirds this year compared to 2019.

Explore more works by Robert Nava.

Ayako Rokkaku, Untitled, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The self-taught Japanese artist Ayako Rokkaku has built a devoted following among collectors with her paintings featuring female figures in colorful, sometimes flower-filled compositions. While the imagery sometimes evokes the superflat stylings of Takashi Murakami and Mr., Rokkaku’s technique of applying paint with her bare hands and fingers gives the work greater levels of texture and gestural detail. Though her work first appeared at auction back in 2007, there has been a significant uptick in the number of lots offered since 2018—when her work was featured in a three-artist selling exhibition at Phillips in Hong Kong, and presented by her gallery, Amsterdam’s Gallery Delaive, at ComplexCon, the Los Angeles festival and conference.

That accelerating secondary market has paralleled demand on Artsy, according to platform data. The number of inquiries on her works on Artsy rose dramatically from 2017 to 2018, and then nearly quintupled in 2019.

Last year, her work reached a new highwater mark at auction, when an untitled, nearly 15-foot-wide canvas from 2007 sold for HK$2.8 million (US$367,000) at an Est-Ouest Auctions Co. sale in Hong Kong. That record still stands, but Sotheby’s came within spitting distance earlier this month, when an untitled Rokkaku painting from 2017, featuring a frowning female figure nearly submerged in colorful vegetation, eclipsed its high estimate of HK$400,000 (US$51,000) to sell for HK$2.7 million (US$357,000).

Explore more works by Ayako Rokkaku.

Anj Smith, Garden II, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.

When Phillips offered Anj Smith’s Garden II (2007)—a neo-Surrealist scene with oil paint applied in sculptural quantities in some areas and tracing wirey lines elsewhere—in its contemporary art day sale last week, it was the British painter’s first appearance at auction since 2014. The enigmatic painting blew past its high estimate of £6,000 ($7,000) and ultimately sold for £35,280 ($45,000), well ahead of her previous auction record, set nearly a decade ago.

That record sum actually lags slightly behind Smith’s primary-market pricing. Hauser & Wirth, which first showed her work in 2005, sold the significantly smaller still life Flowerings of the Chocolate Cosmos (2020) for $55,000 during Frieze New York’s online edition this spring, and a somewhat larger, otherworldly portrait, False Steward (2019–20), for £90,000 ($116,000) during Frieze London’s virtual edition earlier this month. That Smith’s secondary market has remained fairly muted may be a testament to efforts by her gallery to stem auction speculation, or her supporters’ devotion to the work; in light of Garden II’s startling result and collectors’ resurgent appetites for surreal imagery, that may soon change.

Explore more works by Anj Smith.

Benjamin Sutton