Art Market

The Market for Simone Leigh’s Powerful Sculptures Is Poised to Keep Rising

Daria Simone Harper
Nov 6, 2020 9:53PM

Portrait of Simone Leigh in her studio, 2020. © Simone Leigh. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Simone Leigh has earned a reputation as one of the most respected and celebrated living artists, with her characteristically powerful and refined sculptures increasingly becoming must-haves for many top-tier collectors and major museums. Her career achievements over the past several years have proven that her ingenious artistic practice, and her accelerating market, show no signs of slowing. Her latest, biggest achievement came last month when the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA) announced that Leigh will represent the United States at the next edition of the Venice Biennale, making her the first Black woman to represent the U.S. in the prestigious expo’s 125-year history. She will produce a new series of sculptures for the U.S. pavilion at the biennial, which was postponed by almost a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will open in April 2022.

Just two weeks prior to the Venice announcement, the auction record for Leigh’s work was broken when her sculpture No Face (House) (2020) sold for $403,200 (more than four times its low estimate) at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” auction. The sculpture—made of terracotta, porcelain, ink, and epoxy—features a puffed raffia skirt, a material and shape frequently employed in Leigh’s work. It comfortably surpassed Leigh’s previous auction record, set just seven months earlier, when her 2015 work Decatur (Cobalt) sold for $337,500 at another of Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sales.

Simone Leigh, No Face (House), 2020. Photo by Dan Bradica. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Simone Leigh, 107 (Face Jug Series), 2019. © Simone Leigh. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of the artist and ICA Boston.


For two decades, Leigh has created work that asserts the importance of Black women’s experiences. Her practice ranges from large-scale sculpture and installations to video and social practice. Born in Chicago in 1967, she received her bachelor’s degree in art and philosophy from Earlham College in Indiana. Leigh’s work focuses on themes surrounding Black female subjectivity; she’s described her practice as “autoethnographic.” Now based in Brooklyn, she has been creating increasingly monumental sculptures that draw inspiration from multi-layered and sometimes contradictory sources, including traditional West African adobe architecture and forms drawn from racist imagery prominent during the Jim Crow era in the U.S. Her figures are often constructed from materials that have been historically used in African art objects.

Leigh’s selection to represent the U.S. at the “Olympics of the Art World” may be her biggest boost in visibility since 2018, when she won the Hugo Boss Prize, resulting in a major solo exhibition, “Loophole of Retreat,” at the Guggenheim. The following year, one of her large-scale sculptures was acquired by the Whitney Museum and she was included in the Whitney Biennial.

Also in 2019, Leigh was commissioned to create the inaugural artwork for the High Line Plinth, a prominent new site for public art on New York’s elevated park. For that commission, she constructed a 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture titled Brick House, which features the form of a Black woman combined with the shape of a dome-like house. The title of the work refers to an expression that likens the strength and resilience of a Black woman to that of a brick house, and underscores Leigh’s ongoing examination of Black womanhood (Brick House will remain on view through the spring of 2021). In January of this year, Leigh joined the roster of the large international gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Leigh’s recent string of milestones has fueled collector demand. According to Artsy data, interest in her work on the platform steadily increased beginning in 2015, with annual inquiries nearly doubling year over year between 2016 and 2018—the year she won the Hugo Boss Prize.

“The scale did not scare people off”

Simone Leigh
Untitled (tea dust Temoku), 2020
Hauser & Wirth

Simone Leigh, Martinique, 2020. © Simone Leigh. Photo by Elon Schoenholz. Courtesy of the artist and ICA Boston.

While Leigh’s oeuvre spans many media, she is best known for her dynamic sculptures, which also account for all of her work’s secondary-market appearances.

“Works with anthropomorphic forms or that approach the human figure and most clearly translate Leigh’s focus on Black female subjectivity are most sought-after,” said Charlotte Van Dercook, head of Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sales. Leigh’s top five auction results were achieved by sculptures in the form of human busts or full-length figures.

Lauren Wittels, a partner at Luhring Augustine in New York—which represented Leigh for more than three years before she joined Hauser & Wirth—echoed Van Dercook’s sentiments. She added that, since collectors tend to gravitate toward art they can live with, fewer people have the space to take on installation-based work or video art pieces.

Simone Leigh
Village Series , 2020
Hauser & Wirth

Given Leigh’s preferences in materials and the stature of some of her sculptural figures, they might seem like a hard sell for collectors. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that almost all of Leigh’s works that have shown up at auction are under three feet tall, eliminating such spatial concerns. Tellingly, her only larger work to appear at auction, the ceramic and steel sculpture Cowrie (Candomble) (2015) offered at a Christie’s sale last November, is also the only lot of hers that failed to sell.

“Most works offered at auction are very livable,” Van Dercook explained. “For any large sculpture, considerations of space are key, but the same environmental factors such as climate and light which apply to all works of art apply here as well.”

Such issues appear to be of less concern on the primary market. Wittels recalled that even some of Leigh’s larger works have had no trouble finding homes with a private collectors. “We thought it would be challenging [to place] because of the scale,” Wittels said, “but the private collector base that wanted that work was as big, or even larger, than institutional requests. The scale did not scare people off.”

Hauser & Wirth has had similar success placing Leigh’s larger works; in addition to recent sales of smaller pieces priced between $110,000 and $250,000, the gallery sold the six-foot-tall terracotta, steel, raffia, and porcelain sculpture Las Meninas III (2020) for $325,000 during the online edition of Art Basel in Basel in June.

Collectors queuing up

Simone Leigh
Untitled V (Anatomy of Architecture series) , 2016

Successes of the past two years have accelerated Leigh’s already rising market, and her collector base has grown accordingly. “Leigh’s sculptures are technically masterful and speak to under-examined narratives and identities in the art world,” Van Dercook said, adding that she “has strong support from the leading galleries and institutions in the world.”

Wittels said that in the time she worked with Leigh, her support grew from a New York–centric collector base to a much wider network. “It was incredible how word spread in that time,” Wittels told me. “By the time Simone left [Luhring Augustine], there was a ton of European and Asian interest. We brought the work to [Art Basel in Hong Kong] last year, so people who hadn’t traveled saw the work in person there for the first time.” Wittels, who works closely with curators and collectors in the Midwest, added that Leigh has also garnered a great deal of attention from private collectors throughout the region.

Simone Leigh, Jug, 2019. © Simone Leigh. © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo by David Heald. Courtesy of the artist and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Simone Leigh, Hagar, 2020. © Simone Leigh. Photo by Dan Bradica. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Van Dercook said Leigh’s expanding collector base is evident in the secondary-market demand for her work, too. “Leigh’s works have long been collected by leading collectors,” she explained. “It has expanded in the past approximately two years and her price point has increased, with a broad group of collectors, many with strong institutional ties, competing for her work.”

Following a string of major career milestones, record-setting auction results, and her signing with Hauser & Wirth, Leigh’s market looks poised to continue its rapid rise.

“Leigh’s market is already on an upward swing, with works achieving higher prices at auction each season,” said Van Dercook. “I foresee Leigh’s market continuing to grow as the artist produces increasingly ambitious works for future exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale.”

Daria Simone Harper