Art Market

8 Artists Who Had Breakout Moments This Spring Auction Season

Benjamin Sutton
Jun 9, 2021 5:30PM

Huang Yuxing, Riverside Grove under the Starry Night, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The art market’s seasonal calendar started to get back on track this spring after a year of pandemic upheaval. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s held major sales in New York and Hong Kong in late April and throughout the month of May; Phillips will follow suit this month. The bulk of last month’s biggest results were achieved in the houses’ New York salesrooms—primarily by Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings—but at the emerging end of the market, collectors in Asia have made the Hong Kong sales the ones to watch. Here we take a closer look at the market momentum behind eight artists who had exceptional auction results in recent weeks.

Christine Ay Tjoe, Layers with More Circles, 2011. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.


Last month, as the art world’s focus turned to Hong Kong in anticipation of Art Basel’s return to the city, White Cube opened a solo exhibition of new works by the Indonesian artist Christine Ay Tjoe at its local branch. The show, which is on view through August, continues in her vein of heavily worked abstract compositions that alternately evoke cosmic forces and microbial organisms. These newer paintings sport incredibly subtle and fine details, as if the forms are materializing out of the ether, in contrast to the thicker, more gestural brushwork of her earlier paintings. Simultaneously, the gallery offered her work in its booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong, selling the painting Blue Cryptobiosis #07 (2021) for about $115,000. That sum represented a slight markup from the $100,000 price tag for her 2020 painting Large Space of Shoots #2, which White Cube was offering during the virtual edition of Frieze London last fall.

But primary-market prices for Ay Tjoe’s work remain accessible compared to the upper echelons of her secondary market. Back in 2013, for instance, her painting Layers with more circles (2011)—a vibrant composition of reds, pinks, and purples that evokes the floral abstractions of Joan Mitchell—sold for HK$2.9 million (US$376,000) at Sotheby’s, more than five times its high estimate, setting a new auction record for the artist. Last month, Layers with more circles was back on the auction block, at Christie’s this time, and sold for HK$13.4 million (US$1.7 million), once again setting a new auction record for Ay Tjoe’s work—and netting the consignor a 360% return.

Explore more works by Christine Ay Tjoe.

Chen Fei, The Left Fist Has No Strength, 2007. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Beijing-based painter Chen Fei takes a distinctively narrative approach to his compositions, which he envisions as if they were stills from a movie. This, combined with a magical realist tendency influenced both by art history and pop culture, often results in surreal, detail-rich images that might seem melancholic at first, but frequently have a darkly humorous edge. He also frequently incorporates self-portraiture into his paintings, resulting in works like The Left Fist Has No Strength (2007), which draws on manga comic iconography in the image of a female figure punching a male figure (modeled after Chen) across a composition streaked with fantastical energy. Prior to hitting the auction block at a Christie’s evening sale in Hong Kong on May 24th, it had previously sold at a Beijing Hanhai Auction Co. sale 10 years ago for ¥253,000 (US$81,000). Christie’s expected the work to fetch significantly more now, tagging it with a high estimate of HK$1.8 million (US$231,000). It quadrupled that, selling for HK$7.2 million (US$928,000)—a more than elevenfold return on the consignor’s investment—and setting a new auction record for Chen’s work.

On the primary market, his paintings also reach into the six-figure range. During Art Basel in Hong Kong last month, Perrotin offered a 2019 painting of Chen’s, The Deities of Blessing, Prosperity, and Longevity, with a price between $100,000 and $200,000. Those fair and auction appearances followed closely on Chen’s first solo exhibition in Shanghai, which closed in early May at mega-collector Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum.

Explore more works by Chen Fei.

Ann Craven, Little Moon (Rising Full, Soft Red Trees), 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Ann Craven, Stepping Out, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Boston-born, New York–based painter Ann Craven has created a lexicon of romanticism and nostalgia one exquisite brushstroke at a time. Her deceptively unassuming paintings of glowing moons, floral still lifes, showy birds, and other assorted animals belie a sustained interest not only in the craft of painting, but also Pop art and appropriation. These pursuits, it seems, are increasingly resonating with collectors.

Demand for her work on Artsy has risen significantly every year since 2016. In the past year, her New York gallery Karma—where her latest solo show closed last month—has offered her work at virtual fairs around the world, with watercolors priced between $6,000 and $8,000. Oil paintings, meanwhile, have been priced between $12,000 for small compositions and $60,000 for larger works. Those prices are consistent with Craven’s secondary-market figures; her auction record, set in November 2019, is $81,250 for the bold bird painting Big Blue Song (2004). But two dramatic results last month suggest that record may not hold much longer. At a Sotheby’s day sale in New York on May 13th, the slightly larger bird painting Stepping Out (2004) more than doubled its high estimate to sell for $52,920. The following day, at a Christie’s day sale in New York, the watery night scene Little Moon (Rising Full, Soft Red Trees) (2021)—which was being sold to support the nonprofit RxArt—more than sextupled its high estimate to sell for $77,500, just shy of that 2019 record.

Explore more works by Ann Craven.

Huang Yuxing, A Flourishing City Near the Yellow River Source, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Last week, Almine Rech opened a solo show of new works by Huang Yuxing at its Brussels outpost, the gallery’s first exhibition with the Chinese landscape-painting phenom since he joined the roster last November. The show could help solidify a global presence for an artist whose market has been going gangbusters in Asia for years already. His work’s exceptional synthesis of styles—imagery that calls back to traditional Chinese landscape painting rendered in an ultra-contemporary neon palette that verges on abstraction—clearly has broad appeal.

Last July, his work first passed the $1-million mark at auction, and has done so twice more since. Most recently, at a Christie’s evening sale in Hong Kong on May 24th, his epic riverscape A Flourishing City Near the Yellow River Source (2019) flowed swiftly past its high estimate of HK$2.2 million (US$283,000) to sell for HK$9.2 million (US$1.19 million), breaking his auction record. At the following afternoon’s sale at Christie’s, another of Huang’s riverscapes, Riverside Grove under the Starry Night (2016), sold for HK$1.6 million (US$209,000), more than triple its high estimate.

This growing global interest is reflected in Artsy’s data: Demand for his work on the platform was minimal up until 2020, when the number of collectors inquiring about his work increased sixfold year over year. Not even halfway through 2021, those numbers have already surpassed last year’s record high.

Explore more works by Huang Yuxing.

Izumi Kato, Untitled, 2018. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Izumi Kato, Untitled, 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Japanese artist Izumi Kato, known for his evocative faux-naïf paintings and sculptures of childlike figures, has had a devoted cadre of supporters for a while, but in the past year there’s been a palpable acceleration in his market. Last June, during the virtual edition of Art Basel in Basel, his gallery Perrotin sold an untitled 2019 painting for $33,000, a price that might seem quaint in light of Kato’s subsequent auction results. Two solo shows with Perrotin (in Paris last summer and New York this spring) and another at collectors Yan Shijie and Cao Mei’s Red Brick Museum in Beijing likely helped drum up interest.

Kato’s work first passed the $200,000 mark at auction on December 2, 2020, during a Christie’s sale in Hong Kong, breaking his 2016 auction record; two days later, during a Phillips and Poly Auction sale, three works by Kato sold above the $200,000, with a 2017 sculpture of a painted turquoise figure achieving a then-record HK$2.2 million (US$292,000). Last month, that result was nearly doubled at a Christie’s evening sale in Hong Kong, when his untitled 2012 painting of a moody figure with colorful features standing below pink rainfall or fireworks more than tripled its high estimate to sell for HK$4.2 million (US$547,000). That sharp rise in secondary-market prices last year is reflected in Artsy’s data: Demand on the platform for Kato’s work peaked in 2020 following a surge that started the previous year. The number of collectors inquiring about his work on the platform nearly doubled from 2018 to 2020.

Explore more works by Izumi Kato.

MADSAKI, Liberty Leading the People II (Inspired by Eugene Delacroix), 2018. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Japanese artist MADSAKI has built an immense global following with his distinctive and irreverent appropriative paintings, which often feature pop cultural imagery executed in drippy spray paint. His latest solo show with Perrotin, which closed at the gallery’s New York City complex last week, included images culled from vintage sports photography, ads for Marlboro and McDonald’s, and the music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But within his vast oeuvre, no series is more sought after than the “Wannabie” works featuring his distinctive renderings of famous paintings from art history. The artist’s 10 biggest auction results include riffs on iconic paintings by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well a flowery tribute to Takashi Murakami. For the centerpiece of his 2018 show at Perrotin’s Paris space, cheekily titled “French Fries with Mayo,” MADSAKI took on perhaps the most superlatively French painting ever, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).

The Asian collector who bought Liberty Leading the People II (Inspired by Eugene Delacroix) (2018) three years ago consigned it to Christie’s, which offered it during its evening sale of 20th- and 21st-century art last month in Hong Kong with an estimate of HK$1 million to HK$2 million (US$128,000–$257,000). It ultimately sold for HK$4.1 million (US$531,000), smashing MADSAKI’s auction record of HK$3 million (US$383,000), set back in November 2019. The huge result is in keeping with the artist’s currently buoyant market: at the following day’s Christie’s sale, an untitled 2019 painting depicting a nostalgia-tinged scene of suburban childhood also doubled its high estimate, selling for HK$1.6 million (US$209,000), good for the artist’s 13th-highest auction result.

Those prices are in keeping with MADSAKI’s primary market. At last month’s Art Basel in Hong Kong fair, the artist’s Japanese gallery, Kaikai Kiki, was offering an untitled 2020 painting for $120,000 and two recent sculptures for prices between $50,000 and $70,000. On Artsy, interest in the artist surged dramatically in 2020, with the number of collectors inquiring about his work quintupling year over year.

Explore more works by MADSAKI.

Hilary Pecis, Garden Cats, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

May was a big month for Los Angeles–based painter Hilary Pecis’s market. On May 14th, she opened her first solo show with her London gallery, Timothy Taylor, featuring her newest exquisite canvases depicting domestic interiors, still lifes, and landscapes in bright and colorful detail. Then on May 25th, her work appeared at auction for the second time ever when her verdant feline double portrait Garden Cats (2016) was offered at a Christie’s day sale in Hong Kong with a presale estimate of HK$300,000 to HK$500,000 (US$38,000–$64,000). That estimate was in line with her auction debut back in October 2020, when Sotheby’s offered the 2018 painting Matt’s Collection at a Hong Kong evening sale with a HK$200,000 to HK$400,000 (US$25,000–$51,000) estimate, which it handily outperformed, selling for HK$529,200 (US$68,000). But the collectors interested in Garden Cats had their claws out; the work ultimately sold for more than three times its high estimate, or HK$1.7 million (US$225,000), more than tripling her prior record.

That result is likely well above the primary-market prices for similarly scaled works. During the virtual edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach in December, Timothy Taylor sold one of her smaller floral still-life paintings for $11,500 to American collectors. On Artsy, interest in her paintings grew dramatically from 2018 to 2020: The number of collectors inquiring about Pecis’s work more than tripled from 2018 to 2019, and then nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.

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Eleanor Swordy, Where To, 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

It’s almost surprising it took this long for someone to test out the secondary market for Eleanor Swordy’s work. The Brooklyn-based artist has been painting at a feverish clip, with seven solo exhibitions and fair booths since 2017. Her work is also an excellent example of the sort of cleverly stylized figurative painting for which contemporary art collectors have a seemingly insatiable appetite—contemporary scenes rich with details and occasional magical realist flourishes, swooping lines, bold colors, and art historical easter eggs. Think Michael Stamm meets Dana Schutz. On Artsy, interest in Swordy’s work surged dramatically in 2020, with the number of collectors inquiring about her work more than doubling year over year, and 2021 could well surpass that highwater mark.

Swordy’s second solo show with her Los Angeles gallery Moskowitz Bayse, “Is This Real” in 2018, featured several playful and inventive takes on a classical painterly subject: bathers. In one, a comparatively small canvas titled Where To (2018), a figure on a beach who is reckoning with the irrevocable intrusion of sand pulls a shoe onto her dramatically, diagonally raised foot. The first Swordy collector to dip their toe into the secondary market consigned the painting to Sotheby’s, which offered it during a Hong Kong day sale in late April, with an estimate of HK$200,000 to HK$400,000 (US$25,700–$51,400). A wave of interest lifted it to nearly double its high estimate, for a final price of HK$756,000 (US$97,300). Considering that outcome, expect the rising tide of interest in her work to bring more works floating onto the auction block.

Explore more works by Eleanor Swordy.

Benjamin Sutton