8 Artists Who Had Breakout Moments at London’s March 2022 Auctions
Jordy Kerwick, Cool Cats, 2019. Courtesy of Phillips.
This past week, London’s March sales of modern and contemporary art chalked up £577.5 million ($760 million). Those results approached the high end of the presale estimates, and rode out the threat posed to the market by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The total was some 35% more than last year’s equivalent London sales.
While the market for blue-chip, tried and tested artists appeared secure, it was the relatively new artists selected for the auctions that experienced most competition from bidders. With record prices reaching 10 times the estimates seen frequently, auction houses are setting new price points for artists who have primarily been experiencing primary-market success. And whereas last year it appeared that Phillips had the monopoly on this “futures” aspect of the auctions, this year, Sotheby’s, with its dedicated “The Now” evening sale, and Christie’s in its day sales, appear to be taking up the challenge with many more “breakthrough” moments for artists than before.
For this column, I have selected eight artists who had breakthrough market moments, though at least another 16 could have qualified. One veteran dealer who was watching the sales asked me: “What is going on? I have never seen such activity going on at this end of the market before.”
Toward a Shore (2019), Christie’s London, lot 26
Estimate: £30,000–£50,000 ($39,330–$65,551)
Sold: £163,800 ($218,138)
Billy Childish, Toward a Shore, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Billy Childish used to be known primarily as a former partner of Tracey Emin, and member of a group known as the Stuckists, whose figurative work Emin criticised as “stuck, stuck, stuck” in the past. However, Emin also shared Childish’s fondness for Munch, Van Gogh, and early 20th-century European Expressionism. For some time, Childish’s market was quite tame. Auction sale price records start in 2008, the year in which the critic, Neal Brown, in a publication prefaced by Peter Doig, described him as “one of the most outstanding and often misunderstood figures on the British art scene.”
Childish auction sales hovered at under £10,000, rising in 2010 to £15,000 for a self-portrait at Phillips, after which estimates began to creep up. But so did the buy-ins as collectors refused the increased estimates. A breakthrough came in 2015, when Christie’s sold a work online for $56,250, quadruple the estimate, but that price could not be sustained and was followed by several more buy-ins.
His major breakthrough came on the primary market in 2020, when his U.S. gallery, Lehmann Maupin, showed him in South Korea in an exhibition entitled “Wolves, Sunsets and the Self.” On the opening night, four of the seven paintings sold for approximately $30,000 each, three to buyers in South Korea and one from the United States. “No one is more surprised by Mr. Childish’s art world trajectory than Mr. Childish himself,” wrote the New York Times. “It was an overnight success that only took 40 years,” commented Childish.
“Among the artist’s primary-market sales, the majority of growth we’ve witnessed has been in Asia: Approximately 50% of 2021 sales were placed with collections in Asia, with over 30% of those placed within South Korea alone,” a representative from Lehmann Maupin told Artsy this month.
But now, the auction rooms appear to be driving the prices. In London this month, six bidders from Asia and the U.S. competed for Childish’s large painting Toward a Shore (2019) as it sailed over a £30,000–£50,000 estimate ($39,330–$65,551) to sell for £163,800 ($218,138).
When I Need My Father’s Eyes (1998), Christie’s London, lot 285
Estimate: £40,000–£60,000 ($52,441–$78,661)
Sold: £126,000 ($168,426)
Winston Branch, When I Need My Father’s Eyes, 1998. Courtesy of Christie’s.
If you’ve never heard of Winston Branch, that’s not altogether surprising. A Windrush generation Caribbean-born British artist now in his seventies, Branch has been based between California and the U.K. for decades, but has never had a dealer with a major gallery and certainly has no secondary market to speak of. A sprinkling of his paintings in the early 1990s sold for under £100 each. A major milestone came in 2018, when Tate Modern acquired one of his paintings, Zachary 11 (1982). In its annual report, the museum compared Branch to J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet, summarizing the painting as “painterly abstraction inspired by nature.”
That development seems to be having a delayed effect now. Branch does have an agent in London, Varvara Roza, who specializes in Greek art. Branch introduced himself to her about four years ago and suggested she take his work to Greece. Instead, Roza offered to become his agent. Together, they devised a strategy to promote his work, one strand of which would be to place his work occasionally at auction. In this they were assisted by Christie’s.
Last year, a 1982 abstraction by Branch, Hibiscus in July, sold for £12,500, which was more than double its estimate. But that was far below what Roza had in mind. At Frieze Masters, a work by Branch was shown by New York’s ACA Galleries, which represents African American artists such as Faith Ringgold. Although no sale was recorded, the asking price was £185,000.
It was only this month that a breakthrough price was achieved when Christie’s sold the 1998 painting When I Need My Father’s Eyes. Entered for auction with a previously unheard of estimate of £40,000–£60,000 ($52,441–$78,661), the bidding started at £30,000, with several online bidders, including one from Hong Kong. It sold to a private collector in the room for a record £126,000 ($168,426). Roza is now in talks with Christie’s to sponsor a big Branch exhibition in London early in 2023.
A slow teething (2020), Sotheby’s London, “The Now” sale, lot 1
Estimate: £50,000–£70,000 ($65,551–$91,772)
Sold: £617,400 ($825,290)
Rachel Jones, A slow teething, 2020. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2015, promising art student Rachel Jones said, “The dream is that I will make just enough money from my art to paint all day, every day.” Seven years on, that dream looks to have been fully realized.
There were plenty of warning signs that a painting by Jones was going to make a splash. Her inclusion in Hayward Gallery’s “Mixing it Up: Painting Today” exhibition in September 2021 spawned a rash of artist profiles, led by Harper’s & Queen followed by Artnet News, The Art Newspaper, Artforum, and The Economist…a publicist’s dream.
Institutions in bed with market forces have been a feature of the pandemic in London. Similar to Whitechapel Gallery’s “Radical Figures” exhibition in 2020, which promoted market favorites Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, Christina Quarles, and Tschabalala Self, “Mixing it Up: Painting Today” looked like an auctioneer’s wish list with works by Hurvin Anderson, Jadé Fadojutimi, Oscar Murillo, Issy Wood, and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami.
The promotion of Jones’s work didn’t mention prices, but focussed on her works’ oral fetishism—the semi-abstracted, lusciously colored paintings of mouths and teeth as a gateway to the inner body. The intoxicating mix so early in an artist’s career—such as in a 2019 show at the New Art Centre, when large paintings were priced around £10,000 to £20,000—attracted institutions to jump in, including Tate, the Arts Council, and the Contemporary Arts Society, which bought a work for the smaller museum Pallant House Gallery.
Jones’s rise was characterized by curatorial support from the likes of Zoé Whitley, a co-curator of Tate’s “Soul of the Nation” exhibition and now director of Chisenhale Gallery, where Jones is to open a solo show this March. Also in the mix was Julia Peyton-Jones, the former director of the Serpentine Galleries who now works with Thaddaeus Ropac. Peyton-Jones had spotted her near-namesake at a degree show at the Royal Academy in 2019, which led to Jones’s representation with Ropac the following year. In her first exhibition, which closed in early February, everything had been sold, with mid-size works reportedly priced between £40,000 and £50,000 and large works for proportionally more.
A slow teething launched Sotheby’s first “The Now” evening sale in London as a prelude to the higher value modern and contemporary sale. Acquired from The Sunday Painter gallery, the £50,000–£70,000 estimate ($65,551–$91,772) revealed that prices had moved on from New Art Centre days.
Sotheby’s Hugo Cobb said that the number of disappointed collectors who could not buy Jones’s work on the primary market was unusually high, with eight active bidders from Asia, Europe, South America, and the U.S. (one of whom made the winning bid), and as many who could not even get a bid in.
After the work sold for £617,400 ($825,290), it’s going to be interesting to see how Bonhams does with a slightly larger Jones painting, also acquired from The Sunday Painter and estimated at £40,000–£50,000 ($52,441–$65,551), in its London post-war and contemporary sale on March 24th. The consignment signals not just how proactive Bonhams’s business-getting has become, but how broadly the spoils in the current boom can be distributed.
Stack 10, Copper Blue (2017), Sotheby’s London, lot 34
Estimate: £40,000–£60,000 ($52,441–$78,661)
Sold: £201,600 ($264,304)
Annie Morris, Stack 10, Copper Blue, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Until recently, Annie Morris was known as the partner of Victoria Miro–represented artist Idris Khan and as the creator of quirky painted clothespin sculptures. She showed those works in a converted garage space in London’s North Kensington run by Henry Allsopp, son of Christie’s chairman and old-world grandee Charles Allsopp, Baron Hindlip. Morris had a barely perceptible art market presence, especially in the salerooms. But that changed in 2019, when she signed on with Timothy Taylor gallery of London and New York.
As a measure of her expanding market, Sotheby’s had a similarly sized stack of seven colored, powdery polystyrene balls, titled Stack 7, created by Morris in 2017, which the auction house sold for a record £35,000 against a £5,000 estimate. That exaggerated price at the time was achieved in a charity sale to raise funds in response to the tragic fire at the Grenfell Tower housing block. Stack 10, as the title implies, was slightly larger but made six times the price of Stack 7 and was, in turn, double the primary-market prices which Taylor has asked for her “Stack” series sculptures.
Airsickness (2021), Phillips London, lot 1
Estimate: £30,000–£50,000 ($39,330–$65,551)
Sold: £441,000 ($578,164)
Lauren Quin, Airsickness, 2021. Courtesy of Phillips.
This 29-year-old from Los Angeles only graduated from Yale’s MFA program in 2019, but her work is already in museum collections like the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. With a style formally indebted to the tubular (a derivation of Cubist) abstractions of Fernand Leger, but a textural formula, multilayered and incised, all her own, Quin has attracted international attention through shows with Blum & Poe and Loyal gallery in Stockholm. A newcomer to auctions, her work was priced in the $20,000 to $30,000 range in galleries last year, said Olivia Thornton of Phillips, observing that there were high enough sales levels to warrant trying her out at auction.
The work Phillips secured, a 7.5-foot-wide canvas, Airsickness, from 2021, may have an unpalatable title, but it attracted at least 20 bidders, three of whom were completely new to Phillips. The piece sold far above the £30,000–£50,000 estimate ($39,330–$65,551) to a Korean collector for £441,000 ($587,000). Like all these artists whose works are new to auctions and selling at multiple times their estimates, it’s going to be interesting to see if those levels can be sustained.
It Wasn’t to Be (2017), Phillips London, lot 101
Estimate: £10,000–£15,000 ($13,110–$19,665)
Sold: £226,500 ($297,343)
Antonia Showering, It Wasn’t to Be, 2017. Courtesy of Phillips.
Another of Timothy Taylor’s artists, 30-year-old Antonia Showering experienced an even more dramatic leap over her primary market at Phillips. Her slightly somber figurative painting It Wasn’t to Be (2017) kicked off the auction house’s day sale and soared over its £10,000–£15,000 estimate to sell for £226,500 ($297,343).
Phillips had been quick off the mark to locate and debut Showering at auction following two strong showings with Taylor in London: one a group show, and the second, her first high-profile solo exhibition that was still on view at the time of the auction. It Wasn’t to Be is an early work by the artist, painted while she was still a student at the Slade School of Art in London and the same year she was selected for an event of The Great Women Artists, curated by art historian, influencer, and curator Katy Hessel, focused on artists who had used Instagram to further their careers.
Over the following three years, Showering took part in group shows at an impressive array of London galleries including Stephen Friedman Gallery, TJ Boulting, and Timothy Taylor, as well as an online solo presentation with White Cube.
The estimate for It Wasn’t to Be was slightly up on the price when bought at the V1 Gallery’s “New Bad Painting” exhibition in Copenhagen in 2018, where her work was priced between €5,000 and €10,000. Since Taylor has represented Showering, primary-market prices have risen closer to £35,000. However, with 38 bidders from South America, Europe, Asia, and the U.S. in action, Phillips has presented Taylor with a pricing problem.
Cool Cats (2019), Phillips London, lot 102
Estimate: £6,000–£8,000 ($7,866–$10,488)
Sold: £85,680 ($112,329)
Untitled 7 (2021), Phillips New York, “New Now” sale
Jordy Kerwick, Untitled 7, 2021. Courtesy of Phillips.
Only two works by this popular thirtysomething Australian artist had been at auction prior to the March London sales, neither of which reached $10,000. However, both Sotheby’s and Phillips had picked up on the market whispers that demand for Kerwick’s work was building on the primary market, where he is represented by Vito Schnabel in the U.S. and Toby Clarke’s Vigo Gallery in the U.K.
First up was Sotheby’s, which saw Kerwick’s 2020 oil-on-paper painting of a lion attacking an imaginary double-headed quadruped for a record £27,640. But the record only lasted a day. At Phillips, there was a dainty oil and collage flower piece, Cool Cats (2019), much in the style of Jonas Wood, with a £6,000–£8,000 estimate. This proved to be one of the most popular offerings of the week, with about 40 registered bidders from all over the globe, 10 of whom were new to Phillips, said Olivia Thornton, head of the department of 20th-century and contemporary art, Europe. She summarized the appeal of Kerwick’s work as “joyful and childlike.” The contestants hailed from South America, Asia, and the U.S., but were outgunned by a European collector who paid £85,680 ($112,329).
“That was about four times what we sell them for,” said gallerist Toby Clarke, who opens a London show of Kerwick’s work at Vigo on April 1st. Fans of Kerwick include serious collectors such as Bernard Arnault, Beth Rudin DeWoody, and Steven A. Cohen; Korean rap star T.O.P; and artists Mark Grotjahn and Richard Prince. The latter artist fanned the flame when he included Kerwick’s name on a list of favorite artists he posted on Instagram. More works by Kerwick are being sold in New York as I write, with the work Untitled 7 selling for $201,600 at Phillips against a $15,000–$20,000 estimate.
Sisters in Lilac (2021), Phillips London, lot 117
Estimate: £20,000–£30,000 ($26,220–$39,330)
Sold: £214,200 ($280,823)
Emmanuel Taku, Sisters in Lilac, 2021. Courtesy of Phillips
Artist Emmanuel Taku recalled that he would sell his paintings after leaving art school in Ghana for only $500–$1,000 each on Instagram.
Since Taku began working with the Belgian Maruani Mercier Gallery in April 2021, the ceiling for his work rose to $25,000 and they sold out. Now, he dreams of reaching $1 million, like his compatriot, Amoako Boafo. In the London sales, Taku took steps towards achieving that.
Six would seem to be the magic number for the 35-year-old Ghanaian artist. According to Artnet, his first appearance at auction last year saw him realize a sale of six times the estimate when The Amethyst Pair (2020), a colored collage of a model couple in matching floral trouser suits, which sold for £69,300 ($96,000). Then, in March’s sales, he scored two home runs, first on Christie’s Shanghai leg with a 6.5-foot-tall acrylic painting Ripped (2021), featuring another matching couple, this time both male, which sold for ¥1.6 million ($251,468), six times the estimate; and then in Phillips’s day sale, when bidders from China and Hong Kong slugged it out over Sisters in Lilac (2021), which sold for six times the £30,000 high estimate, for a new record of £214,200 ($283,600) to the Hong Kong bidder. Onwards and upwards, as they say.
One observation: Work by artists from Africa, and particularly Ghana, where the market is developing fast, are blitzing the auction rooms with bids over estimates and multiple new records. The artists’ works are understandably hitting the more international contemporary sales, rather than the more regionally themed African art sales. Bold color and linear figures are common to most of this work, and some artists, like Taku or Serge Attukwei Clottey, are preoccupied with fashion and textile design. The African market is rightfully being reassessed, but some are wary that we are seeing a production line successfully at work.
Additionally, the Western press has been besieged with promotional material about Ghana, but, it seems, it is primarily Asian buyers who have taken up the mantle in the marketplace.