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Art Market

8 Artists Who’ve Had Breakout Moments at Auction This Summer

Colin Gleadell
Jul 9, 2021 5:23PM

London’s modern and contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s (with only a smattering of Impressionists) clocked up £313 million ($433.7 million) in 10 sales last week. That take marked a slight improvement on the equivalent pre-pandemic auctions, in June 2019, when their combined sales (excluding Phillips) made £308 million (about $391 million).

Last week’s figures were boosted by the inclusion of two sales of modern and contemporary British art at Sotheby’s (worth £52.8 million, or $73 million), and two modern art sales at Christie’s in Paris (worth £33.4 million, or $46 million), much of which—in terms of lots, if not value—would have been staged separately before. But this is what pandemic auctions have been all about: Mixing and matching and improvising as you go along to keep the ball rolling.

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It was also notable that Christie’s combined London and Paris sale saw London with the far stronger offerings, taking £139 million ($192.7 million) against Paris’s €47 million ($57.1 million), albeit for fewer lots. The juxtaposition did nothing to magnify the impression that London may be losing ground to Paris in a post-Brexit Europe—quite the reverse.

Although I am not a great believer in the value of comparing prices realized to estimates, which fluctuate according to the circumstances of the seller, they still serve a function for analysts looking to see where the action is. In these sales, the most successful in relation to estimates were Sotheby’s modern British auction and Christie’s sale of the Gross collection of modern art (Magritte, Giacometti, and the like) in Paris. The lower-value day sales of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art, which had less of the red-hot new contemporaries than we have seen in New York or Hong Kong over the last year, tended to come in below estimates. Nevertheless, there were plenty of startling results for works by rising artists amid the contemporary lots on offer.


Magdalene Odundo, Untitled, 1986. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

One of the week’s most decisively broken records was for septuagenarian British Kenyan ceramic artist Magdalene Odundo, whose untitled burnished and carbonized terracotta vessel from 1986 sold after a seven-way contest between London, New York, and online bidders to a U.S.-based collector for a quadruple estimate record of £378,000 ($523,328) at Sotheby’s evening sale of modern and contemporary British art. The work had been acquired at Bonhams London in September 2006 for £27,600 ($38,000) by Daniel Biebuyck, an American scholar of Central African art, who died in 2019. Odundo’s market was quiet for a long time after that purchase, with work appearing occasionally in contemporary African and ceramic art sales, never making any more until November 2020, when a 14.5-inch terracotta vessel sold for a hammer price of £200,000 ($275,000) in a contemporary ceramics sale at London’s Maak auctions.

The shift in price occurred soon after Odundo’s solo exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield Museum in 2019. One of the underbidders at last week’s sale was former Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art Francis Outred, who is now an independent advisor. Outred had been inspired by Odundo’s 2019 exhibition, where he saw “a range of global influences from the ancient Greeks and Romans to China and Mexico and of course her African heritage,” he said. “This piece was for me a very powerful example, very bodily with sumptuous curves and a typically mystical deep glaze. I have come relatively late to her work, but there is a maturity of form and glaze which compares with the great ceramicists of the 20th century.” Another underbidder was Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn of Salon 94, which recently showed Odundo’s work in New York.

Explore more works by Magdalene Odundo.


Stanley Whitney, Light a New Wilderness, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Also hardly new on the scene, but only recently “discovered,” is 75-year-old abstract painter Stanley Whitney. Whitney emerged on the auction scene almost out of nowhere in 2018 amid booming interest in works by African American artists, having shown with Lisson Gallery, which has represented him since 2015, and latterly also with Gagosian in Rome.

Since 2019, about a half-dozen large Whitney paintings have sold at auctions in New York, Hong Kong, and London for figures between $275,000 and $365,000 (roughly in line with primary-market prices). Then Light a New Wilderness (2016), a 96-by-96-inch oil on linen geometric abstraction in saturated bright colors, which had been acquired from Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm in 2017 just before the artist’s secondary market took off, was sold by a Scandinavian collector at Christie’s last week for a triple estimate record £525,000 ($724,837)—a significant quantum leap. The price was above primary levels, confirmed Lisson’s director Alex Logsdail, adding that there is a waiting list for Whitney’s work. Coming up is a show of new work at his New York gallery in October, and a traveling retrospective starting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2023.

Explore more works by Stanley Whitney.


Michel Majerus, Painkiller II, 2001. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Just occasionally, as with Jean-Michel Basquiat, the market finds itself dealing with contemporary artists who died too young. One who has been slightly neglected since his death in a plane crash in 2002, aged only 35, is Michel Majerus, whom Marina Ruiz Colomer, head of Sotheby’s London day sales, equates with the more celebrated older-generation German painters Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. “He is something of a cult figure but is not often seen,” she said. It took five years following his death for the secondary market to reflect this status, when an 11-foot-wide untitled painting from the Marino Gonelli collection sold at Phillips in London for $146,460.

Whether coincidence or not, Painkiller II (2001), which Christie’s sold last week, was bought from Petzel Gallery in New York in 2002—the year Majerus died—by Museum of Modern Art chairman Jerry Speyer. Its appearance at Sotheby’s was part of a 21-lot disposal by Speyer family trusts for charitable causes, and its result was a quadruple estimate record of £402,200 ($554,000)—perhaps the most successful of the group, which also included such market heavyweights as Peter Doig, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons.

Explore more works by Michel Majerus.


Chiharu Shiota, State of Being, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Turning to the under-50-year-old record-breakers at the sales, the most frequently sold in recent years has been Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota, with 31 sculptures sold at auction since 2013. Shiota is also a performance artist with links to Marina Abramović and has a Venice Biennale national pavilion show (Japan in 2015) under her belt. She is represented by Berlin’s König Galerie and Galerie Templon in Paris.

Shiota’s installations typically employ thread like a spider’s web wrapping up everyday objects such as shoes and dresses. She clearly has admirers in Asia, too, as her previous record of $243,000 was set at Phillips in Hong Kong. That was about four times the estimate. Last week, Christie’s offered her largest work for sale on the secondary market yet, State of Being (2016), a large rectangular frame on a plinth containing over 5,000 keys wrapped in skeins of red thread. The work was so large that Christie’s could not get it into its showrooms for the preview. It also carried her highest estimate yet, at £100,000 to £150,000 ($137,000–$206,000). Neither deterred bidders, however, and it sold for £287,500 ($396,000) to an Asian bidder (not Japanese, I was assured).

Explore more works by Chiharu Shiota.


Cristina de Miguel, Samba Fan, 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

A number of record prices were set at Christie’s day sale by artists who had donated work to help the AIDS research foundation amfAR. The selection of artists, according to head of sale Anna Touzin, was made by Michael Nevin of New York’s Journal Gallery, who was charged with picking artists with affordable price points, gallery representation, and sufficient demand to ensure that they would sell. Nevin’s choices included some artists whose work had never been offered at auction before.

It was the first time on the block for 35-year-old Cristina de Miguel, a Spanish artist whose works at Fredericks & Freiser last year were priced around $20,000 each. Her five-by-four-foot painting of a bikini-clad figure cooling off in front of a fan, Samba Fan (2021), was a hot-out-of-the-studio, fashionably figurative painting full of gestural brush strokes. Estimated at £4,000 to £6,000 ($5,700–$8,500), it attracted 10 bidders and sold to a client in Asia for an impressive £45,000 ($62,100). Touzin said de Miguel’s work reminds her of André Butzer.

Explore more works by Cristina de Miguel.


Nicole Wittenberg, Water Birch, 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Another auction newcomer was 42-year-old American artist Nicole Wittenberg, who has shown with Cob Gallery in London (famous in my memory for handling works by the stripper-turned-artist Stella Vine and selling them to Charles Saatchi). Cob has sold Wittenberg’s work for about $8,000. At Christie’s, her small, glowing canvas Water Birch (2021), depicting a tree at sunset, was likened by Tozin to the work of Peter Doig, a comparison that may have lifted its price over the £4,000 to £6,000 ($5,700–$8,500) estimate to £26,250 ($36,225).

Explore more works by Nicole Wittenberg.


Cristina BanBan, Dos Modelos (Two Models), 2021. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Rounding out a triumvirate of first-timers was another Spanish artist, 34-year-old Cristina BanBan, who was formerly represented in London by the Norwegian gallerist Kristin Hjellegjerde, who priced her works in the $6,000 range. BanBan is now represented by New York’s 1969 Gallery. Her gift to amfAR was a slightly Picasso-esque Dos Modelos (Two Models) (2021), which might not have looked out of place in the master’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Pitched safely just below retail at £3,000 to £5,000 ($4,100–$6,800), it attracted bidders from London, New York, and Hong Kong before selling for £20,000 ($27,500). Not big money maybe, but going up, not down.

Explore more works by Cristina BanBan.


Jenna Gribbon, Beach Glory, 2020. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

No stranger to Nevin is 41-year-old Jenna Gribbon, who showed at his Journal Gallery in New York last year after having a sold-out show at Fredericks & Freiser in 2019. This year, her impressive list of gallery shows includes Massimo De Carlo in London, Carl Kostyál in Stockholm, and the FLAG Art Foundation in New York. Her lusciously figurative paintings put me in mind of Eric Fischl, but with a different kind of mystery attached. Beach Glory (2021), for instance, was not too far removed from the beach bathing fantasies Fischl has created, and the brushstrokes not too dissimilar. Gribbon has sold work at auction before; three typically small-scale paintings have made up to $37,800 since her debut last October, and Beach Glory raised the bar again, achieving £30,000 ($41,385)—five times the high estimate—after 15 bidders made a play for it. On current form, who would bet against that bar being raised again sometime soon.

Explore more works by Jenna Gribbon.

Colin Gleadell

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated which gallery represents Cristina BanBan. She is represented by 1969 Gallery; the article has been revised to reflect this.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019