Last Year’s Art Stars Make Way for Even Younger, Cheaper Debutants in London’s Auctions as ‘Voracious’ Speculators Seek New Blood

Where is Jadé? Where is Anna? Where is Christina? 

The familiar artist names that have regularly set off fireworks at recent high-stakes contemporary-art auctions are conspicuously missing from the lineup of London sales that are scheduled to kick off February 28. Their absence is all the more intriguing given that London’s auctions are the first public market test of the year, offering an important snapshot of the trends that are crystalizing as the season progresses to Hong Kong and New York.

One thing is clear: There’s a noticeable drop in the offerings of Black portraiture, bro-primitivism, and Spanish New Wave at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. (Where are you, Otis, Jordy, and Rafa?)

Sotheby’s will offer the week’s only Nicolas Party painting, and Christie’s will present the sole canvas by Amoako Boafo—two artists whose works used to be ubiquitous. There’s not a trace of Matthew Wong, whose $48.5 million auction total in 2021 was halved last year. 

Tastes change fast in the investment-driven art market. One of the first places to reflect a shift is the speculative ultra-contemporary segment, where prices for some artists were recently moving up-up-up with lightning speed. The sector’s auction sales grew 500 percent in five years, peaking at $741.4 million in 2021, when they surpassed the Old Masters, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. Now, ultra-contemporary is on the downswing. Last year the broader segment declined by 10 percent, to $668.2 million.

And because the feeding frenzy for many of these market darlings has subsided, speculators have begun testing new-to-the-scene artists. Auction houses are only too eager to offer the stage. Welcome to the Flip Class of 2023.

“There’s a voracious and enduring appetite among collectors for the new,” said David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for the Americas and co-head of marquee sales. “They are constantly seeking out new names. The auctions have become a place where a lot of collectors are introduced to new artists for the first time, and we tailor our sales meticulously to try to really paint a picture of what are the most interesting works being made today.”

Mohammed Sami, <i>Family Issues I</i> (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mohammed Sami, Family Issues I (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Aptly titled “The Now,” Sotheby’s evening sale will begin with Mohammed Sami, an auction newbie whose 2019 painting of a carpeted room is estimated at £50,000 to £70,000. Born in Iraq, the London-based Sami is gaining curatorial attention, with a solo show up now at the Camden Arts Centre in the U.K. capital. His New York debut at Luhring Augustine gallery will feature paintings currently included in the 58th Carnegie International survey.

“Impossible to get primary,” an art advisor told me this week about Sami’s new works. It’s a perfect scenario to stage a multi-phone bidding war and set the mood for the evening auction.

In the same vein, Christie’s will start its 20th/21st Century evening sale with Michaela Yearwood-Dan, a young Londoner of Caribbean heritage, whose large and lush floral tableau is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. Her prices surged to $388,798 at Phillips in December. A recent addition to Marianne Boesky Gallery, she has a show coming up in April in New York.

Phillips positioned Belgian artist Ben Sledsens as its opening act on March 2. Looking stylistically like a cross between Party and Scott Kahn, the painting Wanderer With Dog is estimated at £80,000 to £120,000.

The new crop of artists represents a change of guard from the earlier, pandemic-era cohort; their lower prices and greater resale upside is just what the flippers crave.

“There’s a huge pack of speculators,” said an auction executive. “It’s all pump and dump. And then they are on to the next thing. And auction houses just reflect what artists are being actively sought-after.”

Emerging-art speculators typically don’t buy half-a-million-dollar artworks. Instead they look for things under $50,000 and then create hype.

“They’d resell this work for $150,000 and it would be considered a great result,” said an auction specialist. “Then somehow $350,000 became the new $150,000, and then $600,000 became the new $350,000. It’s just like a product of this frenzied environment for young, contemporary.”

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us Up On Us (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us (Up On Us) (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

It’s a lucrative but risky game. Avery Singer’s art reached its high total of $21.5 million at auction in 2021—and then dropped 28 percent in 2022. Christina Quarles peaked at $10.7 million in 2022, with an auction record of $4.5 million for Night Fell Upon Us (Up On Us), sold by collector Howard Rachofsky in May. Since then, not a single price has come even close.

“Yes, there haven’t been any paintings that have matched the price that we were able to achieve,” Galperin acknowledged of the Quarles market. “But I would also say that there haven’t been any paintings that have come up that matched the quality of this work.”

Ironically, the higher the auction results, the less attractive artists become to speculators. Their markets may remain robust (auction houses would kill to get an A+ Quarles or Jadé Fadojutimi), but trading volumes typically decline when primary prices catch up to secondary values and arbitrage goes away.

A new painting by Anna Weyant and Fadojutimi at Gagosian would set you back $500,000 or more. Hauser & Wirth was asking as much as $1.2 million for large-scale Quarles canvases in her New York exhibition last year, even as most of her older works were fetching $600,000 to $800,000 at auction.

“There are a lot of people who want a painting at $100,000,” an auction expert said. “There are a lot fewer who can pay $1 million. Instead of 20 bidders you get one or two.” 

Meanwhile, new paintings by these artists are still too fresh to be resold. (Stringent non-resale agreements don’t help either.)

“You don’t wanna get blacklisted,” the auction executive said. “Especially since they put the prices at around the level that they were selling secondary. Where is the real upside? Why ruin your relationship with the gallery?”

Other speculative bubbles are getting deflated because of the overproduction by artists and taste changes among collectors.

The frenzy over Black figuration, for example, has subsided dramatically, advisors and auction specialists said. Auction houses are putting brakes on what they take. For example, there’s suddenly a lot less work by Isshaq Ismail, whose seemingly endless supply of heads flooded the market in the past year, selling for as much as $367,541 a pop last March.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, <i>Love me nots</i> (2021). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Love me nots (2021). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Bro-primitivism is another area of contraction. There’s just one painting by Robert Nava going under the hammer in London, at Christie’s evening sale. Auction houses are saying no to countless works by Jordy Kerwick, a stark reversal from October when his painting fetched $242,967 at Phillips in London. Ditto Susumu Kamijo, a Japanese artist whose poodle paintings have sold for as much as $274,724 since his auction debut in 2020, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

“People don’t have the confidence that they’ll make more than they paid,” the auction specialist said.

When the Zombie Formalism bubble burst, collectors watched how their investments plummeted at auction. The houses learned their lesson and came up with a new strategy.

“When the results start going down, we get really selective,” an executive said. “I don’t want it in my evening sale, I’ll put it in the day sale and off-season sale. So these things just get downgraded or they disappear.”

Others see this as a natural market evolution, from gluttony to refinement.

“The highest-quality artists rise to the top, and the public market starts to reflect that,” Galperin said. “You have extraordinary artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who has an incredible show at the Tate right now, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who’s going to open with Zwirner next year. These are artists  who are making Black portraiture and who are in extraordinary demand.”

But supply of top-quality work is always tight. Which is why auction houses are constantly on the lookout for new names whose work is related but less expensive and easier to get.

“You’ll get somebody who’s similar, an artist who’s like the B-version or Johnny-come-lately,” the auction executive said. “You see this in music, too.”

Ben Sledsens, <i>Wanderer with Dog</i> (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

Ben Sledsens, Wanderer With Dog (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

That’s what Sledsens (estimated at £80,000 to £120,000) may be to Nicholas Party (estimated at £900,000 to £1.3 million); and Angela Heisch’s Egg White Blue (estimated at £20,000 to £30,000) to Loie Hollowell’s Split Orbs in purple, ochre, and… (estimated at £400,000 to £600,000) at Phillips.

“If you can’t get a Marlene Dumas, you can get Claire Tabouret,” an advisor said about two female artists, one generation apart.

Tabouret’s market will be tested by her 2014 painting, Les débutantes (blanc lunaire), estimated at £250,000 to £350,000 at Christie’s. Another version of the painting fetched $388,454 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2021.

“It was just truly mindless for a while,” the auction executive said about the feeding frenzy in the ultra-contemporary market. “I feel like there’s a tiny, tiny bit of sense creeping in, people questioning why they’re spending so much on these things.”

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Want to Get a Jump on the Competition? Here Are 6 Rising-Star Artists to Seek Out at the 2021 Armory Week

While timed entry and crowd control mean that New York’s Armory Week fairs are roomier than they have been at other peak market moments, sales are moving along at a steady clip. Most in demand are paintings that put a twist on figuration, whether by placing the human form in surreal, imaginary settings or by rendering it with novel digital tools.

Gone are the days when collectors clamored for rediscovered dead artists from the ’60s and ’70s. Today, they want the chance to get in on the ground floor—the first time around.

Which artists across New York’s fairs are generating the most buzz this week? See our picks are below.


Chase Hall

Chase Hall, <i>Major Taylor</i> (2020). Photo: Katya Kazakina.

Chase Hall, Major Taylor (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Who: Chase Hall (b. 1993) is a self-taught artist who explores themes of race and identity in paintings of Black jazz musicians, athletes, as well as creatures big and small (an homage to his childhood obsession with Animal Planet). His use of raw cotton canvases and ground coffee beans alludes to the history of slave labor. Instead of using white pigment, Hall leaves parts of his canvases unfinished, equating the negative space with whiteness.

Based in: New York

Showing at: Monique Meloche, Chicago, at Independent

Prices: Paintings range from $12,000 to $30,000.

Why You Should Pay Attention: At least three museums are among those trying to get their hands on Hall’s works at Independent. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, bought a painting from his debut with Monique Meloche in 2020; Chase’s solo show with Clearing gallery in New York sold out earlier this year. The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Rubell Museum in Miami also own his work.

Notable Resume Line: Hall participated in the prestigious residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and was a resident at MASS MoCA.

Up Next: A solo show with Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, Switzerland, in April 2022.

Katya Kazakina


Rute Merk

Rute Merk, Ellee (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York. Photo: Phoebe D’Heurle

Rute Merk, Ellee (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York. Photo: Phoebe D’Heurle

Who: Rute Merk (b. 1991) explores the role of the digital in contemporary painting. She contrasts hard-edged shapes with sfumato technique to build up eerie and mystical portraits of androgynous, post-human characters.

Based in: Berlin, Germany

Showing at: Downs and Ross, New York, at Independent

Prices: Paintings range from $20,000 to $40,000.

Why You Should Pay Attention: Collectors and museums in the U.S., Europe, and Asia are are clamoring for the paintings. Her collaboration with fashion house Balenciaga on a series of works resulted in her first show at Downs and Ross.

Notable Resume Line: Merk’s paintings have been acquired by Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneve, and the X Museum in Shanghai.

Up Next: In 2022, the artist will have solo shows at an institution in Shanghai and at Downs & Ross in New York. She will also be included in a number of group museum shows, including at the Green Family Art Foundation in Dallas.

Katya Kazakina 


Deb Sokolow

Deb Sokolow, Visualizing a Room Engineered to Accommodate an Empath (2021). Courtesy of Western Exhibitions.

Deb Sokolow, Visualizing a Room Engineered to Accommodate an Empath (2021). Courtesy of Western Exhibitions.

Who: Deb Sokolow (b. 1974) is building up a piercing yet humor-accented body of work largely centered on architecture and how it must adapt to our increasingly damaged world—an enterprise equally informed by scholarly investigations into canonical greats like Frank Lloyd Wright and bleary-eyed “Where did the night go?” internet sleuthing into the ever-expanding vortex of conspiracy theories.

Based in: Chicago

Showing at: Western Exhibitions, Chicago, at Future Fair

Prices: Her latest series of drawings, which use mixed media and collaged relief elements to visualize the floor plans of various borderline-fantastical interiors, range from $3,000 to $10,500.

Why You Should Pay Attention: Sokolow’s work has attracted the literal and figurative buy-in of numerous noteworthy U.S. institutions from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, but Western Exhibitions founder Scott Speh said that the artist has yet to find as much traction in New York.

Notable Resume Line: Institutions that have acquired pieces by Sokolow include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, and D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (where she was also curated into the 2019 group exhibition “Manifesto: Art x Agency”).

Up Next: New works directly related to those on view at the fair will be featured in the November edition of David Zwirner’s Platform, so jump on them now before the global masses start reaching for their digital shopping carts.

Tim Schneider 


Sedrick Chisom

Sedrick Chisom, Untitled (2021). Photo courtesy of Matthew Brown.

Sedrick Chisom, Untitled (2021). Photo courtesy of Matthew Brown.

Who: Sedrick Chisom (b. 1989) has earned himself a devoted fan base with his eerie paintings inspired by a 60-page play he wrote called 2200, about a future in which all people of color have been transported away from Earth, leaving white people to engage in civil war.

Based in: New York

Showing at: Matthew Brown, Los Angeles, at Independent

Prices: Works at the gallery’s booth were priced between $8,500 and $18,000.

Why You Should Pay Attention: Chisom isn’t the only young artist working today who is painting dreamy, surreal scenes from imagined futures. But the expansiveness of his imagination (in his narrative, white people develop a medical condition that alters the pigment of their skin and mutates their features) and the skill with which he creates these indelible scenes make him stand out. All the works in Matthew Brown’s presentation—which were smaller than his typical scale—were spoken for by Thursday afternoon.

Notable Resume Line: A solo show of his work just closed late last month at the star-making gallery Pilar Corrias in London. He was awarded the 2018–2019 VCU Fountainhead Fellowship in Painting and Drawing and was a 2019 resident at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Up Next: His first museum solo show at an unknown venue… Matthew Brown’s director said “they’d have my head” if she gave any hints.

Julia Halperin


Kati Heck

Kati Heck, Vondirfüruns-theory (2021). oil on canvas, frame with messing plate site size: 140 x 110 cm / 55 ⅛ x 43 ¼ in Credit: © Kati Heck, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Kati Heck, Vondirfüruns-theory (2021). Credit: © Kati Heck, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Who: Kati Heck (b. 1979) is a skilled painter whose style mixes Old Master influences with a healthy dose of the surreal and the weird. Think of her work as a mash up of Frans Hals, Balthus, and Picabia, filtered through the female gaze. 

Based in: Pulle, Belgium

Showing at: Sadie Coles Gallery, London, at the Armory Show

Prices: Paintings range from €40,000 to €65,000 ($47,248 to $76,777).

Why You Should Pay Attention: Heck has shown at nearly every major institution in Antwerp, but she has yet to really break through in the U.S. She counts among her collectors the American hedge-fund manager Andrew Hall and the French heir Antoine de Galbert. Two of the three works by the artist at the Armory Show had sold by Thursday afternoon. 

Notable Resume Line: Heck recently had her second solo show, “Bonnie Bonne Bon,” at Sadie Coles this past summer. Her work was chosen for a 2009 show at Bozar curated by Ai Weiwei and Luc Tuymans. 

Up Next: A solo exhibition with Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp next year.

—Eileen Kinsella


Kwesi Botchway

Kwesi Botchway, Non Binary (2021). Image courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, Ghana.

Kwesi Botchway, Non Binary (2021). Image courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, Ghana.

Who: Striking portraits by Kwesi Botchway (b. 1994) were drawing serious buzz during the Armory Show’s VIP preview. The artist told us at the fair that he is drawn to characters who “are bold in the way they dress, or how they carry themselves” and has previously said he aims “to elevate Blackness and also what Black truly represents.” 

Based in: Ghana and Frankfurt (where he is currently studying at the Frankfurt Art and Design Academy)

Showing at: Gallery 1957, London and Accra, in the Armory Show’s “Presents” section 

Prices: $35,000 to $60,000

Why You Should Pay Attention: Along Amoafo Boako and Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, with whom he studied at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design, Botchway is at the vanguard of a new generation of West African painters. His large portraits had already sold out by the morning of the Armory Show’s VIP preview. 

Notable Resume Line: Following solo shows with Gallery 1957 in Accra and London, Botchway’s solo presentation at the Armory Show marks his U.S. debut.

Up Next: A solo show at Maruani Mercier gallery in Brussels.

—Eileen Kinsella

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