How Auctions Identify the Next Big Artists and Trends

Phillips’s 20th-century & contemporary art auction, 2017. Courtesy of Phillips.

Auctions prophesize the rise of art stars and identify trends in the contemporary scene through financial returns. While many spectators cast their attention toward biennials as harbingers of what is to come in the art world, auctions reflect these changes more quickly and concretely than the usual institutional measures that rely on time to solidify these currents.

Specific auctions dedicated to mapping out emerging trends in the contemporary arts include Phillips’s “New Now” sale, which focuses on emerging artists, as well as Sotheby’s “The Now” evening auction, which, according to that house, “comprises works that together form a portrait of the varied tendencies and trends that constitute the art of our time.” On the occasion of the recent auctions of contemporary art in New York, Artsy spoke with Kate Bryan, head of the forthcoming June 20th 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale at Phillips, to chart the impact of auctions on the contemporary art world.

Emily Mae Smith, Dust, 2019. © Emily Mae Smith. Courtesy of Phillips.

“Auctions have certainly become an important factor in shifting art market trends. There are so many examples where auction performance creates a new widespread awareness for an artist,” Bryan wrote via email. “While collectors are now able to educate themselves through a multitude of resources, auction houses provide an integral stream of knowledge. Our expertise can equip art enthusiasts with the tools to help them learn about the market, artists, and in that vein, work out what it is they like and want to acquire.”

With the contemporary market oversaturated with competing ideas and styles, artists who make their auction debut and exceed sales estimates are key to concretizing ascendent movements. Bryan, for example, associates the rise in recent years of women painters working in the contemporary surrealistic style with the 2018 Phillips sale that featured the auction debut of painter Emily Mae Smith. Smith’s work now sells at an average of 449% above her estimates. “We have seen that since then there has been an increased appreciation for work by contemporary artists reinterpreting surrealism through the female lens,” Bryan wrote.

Sarah Slappey, Yellow Touch, 2018. © Sarah Slappey. Courtesy of Phillips.

María Berrío, Flor, 2013. © María Berrío. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

Artists that fit into this style of contemporary surrealism include María Berrío and Sarah Slappey. Berrío made her auction debut at Sotheby’s November 2021 “The Now” evening auction with her painting collage Flor (2013), which sold for $927,500—nearly eight times the high estimate of $120,000. Slappey made her auction debut at the Phillips “New Now” auction in March 2022, where her painting Yellow Touch (2018) sold for $100,800—nearly nine times the high estimate of $12,000. Debuts like these help paint a clearer picture of central artists leading this return to contemporary surrealism.

Black figurative painters have made strong waves at auctions over the past five years. At Sotheby’s 2018 contemporary art evening sale, Kerry James Marshall’s figurative painting Past Times (1997) sold for $21.1 million, 111% over the low estimate of $10 million a price that remains the highest ever paid for a living Black American artist. While Marshall was quite established at the time of the sale, the auction record can be interpreted as an indicator of a shift in style and desires in the art world. Auction narratives like this do more than raise the visibility of a singular artist—they further cement the artistic style of a generation as gallerists and curators seek out other artists to mirror that success.

Delphine Desane, Journeyin’ into Motherhood, 2021. © Dephine Desane. Courtesy of Phillips.

Following the memorable sale of Past Times, a tremendous outpouring of both market and institutional support has been delivered toward Black figurative painters who take after Marshall, including Johnson Ocheja, Johnson Eziefula, and Delphine Desane. Desane recently made her auction debut at the Phillips “New Now” sale last fall, where her painting Journeyin’ into Motherhood (2021) sold for $100,800—four times the $25,000 high estimate.

Bryan credited artists’ success at auctions—and specifically, their debuts—to the in-house experts and their ability to forecast the pulse of the contemporary art world through a variety of tactics that emphasize audience engagement. “Our long-standing digital and client-first strategies and team of experts around the world put together highly focused sales that reflect international collecting trends and appetites and produce high quality content to accompany those pieces, providing clients with access to a wide variety of information,” she wrote.

Stanley Whitney, Forward to Black, 1996. © Stanley Whitney. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

But it’s not just debut sales that shape institutional trends. Auctions also solidify artistic legacies, as they have in recent years with established Black abstract painters. At the same Sotheby’s “The Now” auction where Berrío’s Flor sold, Stanley Whitney’s work reached a market high. Whitney’s Forward to Black (1996) sold for $2.4 million, which was a colossal tenfold increase over the $150,000–$200,000 estimates. That same auction featured work by Mark Bradford, whose Burn Baby Burn (2002) sold for $3 million.

Bradford made his historic auction debut at Phillips in 2018, a key sale for Bryan during her tenure at the house. “The March 2018 Evening Sale in London achieved over £97 million [$121.1 million] (the highest London evening sale total to date),” Bryan wrote. “The same sale saw a world record achieved for Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter I which, at over £8.6 million [$10.7 million], remains the highest price ever achieved for Bradford’s work.”

Because auctions curate their lots to incorporate a mixture of both emerging and more established artists, they effectively help narrate which artists are key to impacting contemporary art styles. They enable collectors to watch movements, artists, and trends be solidified in real time.

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