Advertisement
Art Market

8 Artists Who Had Breakout Moments at March Auctions

The auctions that took place last month in Hong Kong, London, and New York were closely watched by industry observers for signs of the art market’s health going into 2021. After all, in the midst of the sales, we learned that the art market took a $14.3-billion tumble in 2020 due to the pandemic. But despite much hand-wringing, the prognosis for this year looks positive.
Major works hit their high-value estimates; sell-through rates were high across a broad slate of hybrid and online-only auctions; Hong Kong sales continued their strong performance from last year; London auctions seemed to bounce back after a disappointing 2020; and resilient financial markets plus favorable fiscal policies in the U.S. put collectors in a mood to acquire (and consign) top-shelf works.
All of this made for feverish bidding on works by trending artists, which often recalled the heady days of 2018. For a few weeks, it seemed auction records were being broken daily and by the dozen—a single Phillips “New Now” auction on March 3rd saw new highwater marks set for a whopping 20 artists. Here, we take a closer look at the markets for eight artists who had exceptional secondary-market results last month.

Aboudia, Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Aboudia, Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The market for Ivorian artist Aboudia (full name Abdoulaye Diarrassouba) has been gaining momentum for the past five years, with more and more works hitting the auction block annually—and, lately, dramatically outpacing their estimates. In spite of the growing supply of work, demand continues to skyrocket. This year is already on track to be his biggest yet at auction, thanks in part to an exceptional sale organized by Christie’s in which the house sold a trove of new works by Aboudia in a dedicated online sale. The canvases and works on paper featured bold colors and the artist’s distinctive, brash style of mark-making, which has often sparked comparisons to , but draws on the aesthetics and symbolism of West African wood carvings and the graffiti on the streets of Abidjan.
All 22 lots in the dedicated Christie’s auction fetched prices above their estimates, and in most cases achieved several times their high estimates. The sale marked Aboudia’s first-ever auction result above $100,000—there were six of them, actually—and two paintings went for $187,500, setting a new record for his work that held for just 13 days. At Christie’s day sale of contemporary art in London on March 25th, a large untitled canvas from 2013 shot past its high estimate of £20,000 ($27,000) and ultimately sold for £162,500 (over $222,000). The consignor, who bought it at a Chiswick Auctions sale in 2017 for an on-estimate price of £10,370 ($13,200), pocketed a 1,567% return on their investment in less than four years.
This latest flurry of auction action coincided with an exhibition of new Aboudia works at Jack Bell Gallery, the prolific artist’s 10th solo show with the gallery. It, too, completely sold out.

The Swiss-born, Los Angeles–based painter Louise Bonnet had her first major solo exhibition in 2016, and over the next couple of years, she showed with a set of influential small and mid-size spaces including Half Gallery, Galerie Max Hetzler, and Nino Mier Gallery. In 2019, the latter brought an entire booth of her paintings to The Armory Show, and sold every single piece for prices between $45,000 and $60,000. Clearly, her brand of finely rendered absurdist, grotesque, and surreal imagery was resonating with collectors—and blue-chip dealers took note. Six months later, Bonnet’s work was featured prominently in a group show curated by Half Gallery founder Bill Powers at Gagosian; and a year later, in September 2020, Bonnet opened her first solo exhibition with the mega-gallery.
After Bonnet joined Gagosian’s roster, it was only a matter of time before a collector tested the secondary market for her work. That time came last month, when Sotheby’s offered an untitled drawing from 2018 featuring one of Bonnet’s torqued figures rendered in vibrant orange, with a characteristic mop of blonde hair but no face, in its “Contemporary Curated” auction. The drawing sold for $81,900, or more than four times its high estimate, virtually guaranteeing that additional Bonnet paintings will be finding their way to auction in the near future.

Sônia Gomes, Sem título from the series “Torção,” 2013. Courtesy of Phillips.

Sônia Gomes, Sem título from the series “Torção,” 2013. Courtesy of Phillips.

The revered sculptor Sônia Gomes had her first one-person exhibition at the Casa de Cultura de Sete Lagoas in 1994, but it wasn’t until 2019 that she had a solo show outside her native Brazil. That year, her longtime gallery Mendes Wood DM gave her a show at its Belgian outpost, and Germany’s Museum Frieder Burda organized a major exhibition—the international art community was immediately hooked by her intricate abstract sculptures made from fabric, wire, and found materials. Last summer, the galleries Pace and Blum & Poe signed on to represent Gomes (alongside Mendes Wood DM), and she’s due to have solo shows with both soon (Blum & Poe later this year, Pace in 2022).
Gomes’s fast-rising international profile appears to have sparked secondary-market demand. Her second-ever appearance at auction, following a work that sold for its high estimate ($25,000) at a Sotheby’s sale back in 2018, came during Phillips’s “New Now” sale on March 3rd. The delicate, detailed, wall-mounted sculpture Sem título (2013) had a high estimate of $12,000 but ultimately sold for more than 11 times that sum, $138,600, smashing her previous record.

Jammie Holmes, Untitled (Aunt), 2020. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Jammie Holmes, Untitled (Aunt), 2020. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Jammie Holmes’s career and market. Last spring, the Louisiana-born, Dallas-based artist made national headlines when he had planes fly above five U.S. cities with banners featuring the words spoken by George Floyd before he was killed by Minneapolis police. Then in August, his hometown institution, the Dallas Museum of Art, commissioned a pair of new paintings from Holmes and acquired one of them for its permanent collection. That rising profile quickly translated into a strong secondary market for his distinctive figurative paintings laced with symbolism.
Holmes’s work first appeared at auction in early December, and then three more times before the end of the month, topping out at $94,500 for an untitled painting offered in a Phillips day sale. Another three of his paintings came to auction last month, one of which—Untitled (Aunt), painted just last year and offered in Christie’s March 25th day sale—surpassed his record by more than 30%, selling for £131,250 ($181,000) against a high estimate of £55,000 ($75,800). In light of those rapidly rising prices, his forthcoming debut solo show with influential Detroit gallery Library Street Collective seems destined to be a sold-out affair.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Tampon Incision Study 3 (SJW), n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Tampon Incision Study 3 (SJW), n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The key year in Zimbabwe-born U.K.-based painter Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s career thus far is probably 2019. That year, she enrolled in the MFA program at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art, had her first institutional solo exhibition at the London nonprofit Gasworks, and showed in Zimbabwe’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. From there it took about a year for the secondary market to take notice, and in October 2020, her work made its auction debut when the work on paper Sango neMuchero (2014) was offered in an online sale at Christie’s and fetched £37,500 (about $48,800), or more than seven times its high estimate. Then, on December 8th, her bold painting of a reclining nude, Eve on Psilocybin (2018), was offered at a Phillips day sale with a high estimate of $40,000, which it surpassed sixfold, to eventually sell for $252,000. Two days later, it was announced she’d signed with influential London dealer Victoria Miro.
Eve on Psilocybin’s record price still stands, though Bonhams, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s all took cracks at besting it last month. Sotheby’s came closest in its London sale of modern and contemporary African art on March 31st, when it offered another layered, pastel-accented reclining nude painting, Tampon Incision Study 3 (SJW), with a high estimate of £50,000 ($68,700). The work nearly tripled that sum, selling for £138,600 ($190,500), good for her second-highest price at auction, for now. With her solo debut at Victoria Miro in the pipeline, expect the waiting list for her work to be long and competitive.

Joy Labinjo, No Wahala, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Joy Labinjo, No Wahala, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

In 2018, the British painter Joy Labinjo had her first four solo shows; two in Newcastle, at Gallery North and Goldtapped, and two in London, at Morley Gallery and Tiwani Contemporary. Her distinctive work—portraits of historical and contemporary figures classically posed and rendered in many-faceted panels of contrasting color against bold backdrops—quickly struck a chord. In the closely watched “Focus” section of Frieze London in 2019, Tiwani Contemporary showed a solo booth of her works and sold every last piece, priced at £10,000 ($12,000) each, to a mix of collectors and institutions within the first two hours of the VIP opening.
Collectors’ interest in her work has not waned since, and in December 2020, her work appeared at auction for the first time. Visiting Great Grandma (2018) was offered in Phillips’s day sale in New York and skyrocketed to $189,000, or more than 12 times its high estimate of $15,000. Last month, her work came to auction four more times, with three pieces selling for multiple times their high estimates. Most remarkably, Christie’s lined up her popping 2019 painting No Wahala as the second lot in its marquee 20th-century evening sale on March 23rd, where it nearly quadrupled its high estimate of £40,000 ($55,000) to sell for £150,000 (about $206,900), good for a new auction record for the artist.

Pieter Schoolwerth, Live Free or Die, 2002. Courtesy of Phillips.

Pieter Schoolwerth, Live Free or Die, 2002. Courtesy of Phillips.

St. Louis–born, New York–based artist Pieter Schoolwerth’s work first appeared at auction in the mid-aughts, before his approach to figurative painting—creating effects made familiar from image-editing software like Photoshop with paint on canvas—became a widespread practice. And while he has exhibited widely and caught the attention of museum acquisition committees and collectors including Christie’s owner François Pinault, his work never took off at auction. That may be starting to change.
Last year, Schoolwerth started showing with tastemaking New York gallery Petzel, which sold one of his paintings in the virtual edition of Art Basel in Basel for $55,000. Three months later, he had his debut solo show with the gallery, featuring paintings made during quarantine and based on screenshots from the game The Sims 4. And last month, his secondary market finally showed signs of life. At Phillips’s “New Now” sale, Schoolwerth’s 2002 painting Live Free or Die—which failed to sell in its previous auction appearance, back in 2010—went for more than three times its high estimate, or $22,680, setting a new auction record for his work.

Claire Tabouret, The Last Day, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Claire Tabouret, The Last Day, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Secondary-market prices for the French-born, Los Angeles–based artist Claire Tabouret’s nostalgia-tinged and vaguely ominous paintings first started to take off last summer, when her paintings’ prices started inching higher and then skyrocketed with the sale of Les déguisements (Disguises) (2015) at Phillips in Hong Kong, where it more than quadrupled its high estimate to sell for HK$3.5 million (about US$451,600).
Since then, Tabouret’s large group portraits have routinely sold for six-figure sums at auction, numbers that are not entirely out of keeping with primary-market prices: At the 2019 edition of Frieze London, Almine Rech sold one such painting, Reception Hall (2019), for $150,000. Last month, Christie’s offered The Last Day (2016), a group portrait of children in costumes accented with tinges of radioactive green. The disquieting scene proved irresistible to collectors, who bid the work up to more than triple its high estimate. It ultimately sold for £622,500 (over $862,000), smashing Tabouret’s record. Considering her prodigious pace of production and exhibitions—including two shows at Perrotin and one with Night Gallery just last year—expect more works to appear on the auction block before long.
Benjamin Sutton