Speculators win big betting on young artists

LONDON — Three years ago, his large paintings were selling at a little-known gallery for around $40,000 each. In 2021, one of them was resold at a Sotheby’s auction for a record $3.1 million. Another hangs in the Downing Street home of UK Finance Minister Rishi Sunak.

Flora Yukhnovich, 31, a British painter whose first solo exhibition at the Victoria Miro gallery in London opens on Tuesday, is one of the most sought-after young rising stars in the art world, and her works are attracting a voracious international demand from collectors and speculators.

“The number of very interested and serious collectors who have inquired after work is in the hundreds,” said Matt Carey-Williams, Victoria Miro’s sales manager.

The heat in the market for Yukhnovich’s exuberant semi-abstract paintings is symptomatic of the phenomenon known as “turnaround”. When the demand for certain artists greatly exceeds the supply, those lucky enough to have acquired their works through galleries can make huge profits if they offer them at auction. Galleries are keen to avoid this: a bubbly resale market can make it difficult for artists to pursue long-term careers.

“Auction results do not affect the pricing strategy adopted for Flora’s work,” Carey-Williams said. Yukhnovich, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has a distinctive style of painting that dematerializes figure-laden subjects by Old Masters into swirling splashes of color. Her final works in the Victoria Miro exhibition are valued between $135,000 and $470,000 (£100,000 to £350,000), reflecting how the artist’s gallery prices have “slowly and cautiously increased over the of the past 18 months,” according to Carey-Williams.

Yukhnovich’s auction prices, on the other hand, have risen in a different area, which only encourages more potential buyers to join the line.

The stakes for betting on young contemporary creation have never been higher.

In 2014, works by artists under 40 fetched $181 million at auction. Last year, they made a record $450 million in sales, a 275% increase from 2020, according to Artprice, a France-based company that tracks international auctions. Eyebrows were raised at this first market froth when paintings by artists like Smith, Jacob Kassay and Oscar Murillo were knocked down to fetch auction prices of over $300,000. Recent auction house prices for Yukhnovich, Matthew Wong and Avery Singer added an extra digit.

“The market has grown since 2014,” said New York-based art consultant Wendy Cromwell. “There are a lot more people and there is a lot of money in the system. There is competition for only a few artists, resulting in exponentially higher prices.

Buyers of big-ticket contemporary art are also getting younger, Cromwell said. A new wave of participants in their 40s, 30s and even 20s, enriched by heritage and the tech economy, is transforming the market, she added. “There’s been this youthful tremor in terms of who buys the work and who distributes it,” she said.

According to Sotheby’s year-end statement, “An influx of younger, tech-savvy collectors” has helped the auction house reach a record $7.3 billion in sales in 2021, the number of bidders under 40 increased by 187%.

Given the market’s focus on youth and technology, it’s no surprise that Instagram has been the main driver of interest in Yukhnovich’s work, as it is for so many. artists today.

“I met Flora on Instagram, and I certainly wasn’t alone,” said Matt Watkins, director of Parafin Gallery in London, which held a small group solo exhibition of Yukhnovich’s paintings in 2019. Influencers like Carey-Williams and young art Historian Katy Hessel, whose account thegreatwomenartists has 250,000 followers, was an early enthusiast, as was ArtForum’s Instagram account, which has 1.2 million followers .

“It gave him enormous visibility. Instagram was the biggest thing,” Watkins said.

The seven-figure auction prices that followed also caught Yukhnovich’s eye, as did the artist’s move to the Victoria Miro Gallery, with its list of international clients and roster of global art stars.

Carey-Williams said that Victoria Miro would only sell Yukhnovich’s works to “reputable collectors where the gallery and the artist are very confident that any acquisition will remain for the long term.”

The approach echoes the tightly controlled representation by the gallery of beloved Los Angeles-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, which prioritizes sales to public museums to enhance Crosby’s critical reputation and exclude profiteers. For the past six years, Victoria Miro has placed works by Crosby in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tate; and other establishments. No major recent work by this sought-after artist has been resold at auction since 2018, according to Artprice.

“By restricting access to new works, the auction market is stifled. There is no momentum,” said Cromwell, the art adviser, who added that many buyers who manage to acquire new works by in-demand artists are now forced to sign agreements that oblige them to offer to the source gallery a first refusal if they wish. to sell.

With dealers in America and Europe determined to limit sales of the most desirable young art to established collections, new buyers need to look further.

Ghana, in particular, is now seen as a hotspot for emerging talent. Last year, works by one of the country’s hottest young artists, Amoako Boafo, sold at auction for $3.4 million, against gallery prices of just $10,000.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Victoria Cooke, director of Gallery 1957, a concessionaire in Accra, Ghana’s capital, which represents local artists and exhibits them internationally. “Even during the pandemic, there were collectors and gallery owners here from Paris, the United States and the United Kingdom. A lot of people are trying to go straight to the source,” she said, adding that the buyers were “a mixture of collectors and speculators”.

“People can come in, buy a studio here, and return the works,” Cooke said. “It might seem like an exciting opportunity if you don’t have someone you trust that advises you otherwise.”

Because there are only two major dealers in Accra (the other being the ADA Contemporary Art Gallery) to act as gatekeepers for Ghanaian talent, its budding artists turned to an auction house international to reach a – hopefully – less fragmented clientele.

In January, Phillips, in his role as private sales broker, rather than public auctioneer, mounted the 10-day “Birds of a Feather” sales exhibition at his London headquarters. Showcasing 18 recent works by six young, almost unknown Ghanaian artists, this rare venture from an auction house into the gallery-dominated “primary market” was organized in collaboration with Artemartis, an Accra-based artist collective. All the works sold, for prices ranging from $4,000 to $12,200, according to Anna Chapman, a spokeswoman for Phillips, although she declined to divulge more information about these private sales.

“There are a lot of people who come to Ghana to try to work with artists,” said Selasie Gomado, the founder of Artemartis, who acts as a marketer and manager of the collective. “We teach them the importance of contractual agreements, so they can have long-lasting and sustainable careers. An artist can attract a lot of attention and ultimately end up with nothing.

Buyers of these modestly priced works by young Ghanaian artists at Phillips may or may not intend to return them. Corn those lucky enough to have purchased Yukhnovich’s works at such an early stage in his career continue to cash in. The next day, at Sotheby’s, a work from 2020 carries a high estimate of $270,000.

Whether we like it or not, it is this kind of winning bet on young talent, as much as on art itself, that attracts so many people to the art world today.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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