Spring Auction Sales for Two Blockbuster Weeks Top $2.5 Billion

Last year, global auction sales of paintings by artists under 40 soared to $259.5 million, a 177 percent increase on 2020, according to data provided by Artprice, a French-based auction analytics company.

Eager to jump on this fast-moving bandwagon, Sotheby’s has come up with a new format called “The Now” sales, focusing on works by the most coveted names of the moment. On paper, this 23-lot offering was meant to be the warm-up act for the main sale of works by established contemporary artists, but with so much attention — and money — being focused on younger names, for many, this was the evening’s main event.

Like hungry chicks in a nest, banks of Sotheby’s staff members screamed telephone bids as Lot 1, the 2020 painting “Falling Woman,” by the New York-based artist Anna Weyant, set the tone. Estimated at $150,00 to $200,000, it sold to an online bidder for $1.6 million, beating the record $1.5 million set for the artist at Christie’s last week.

Female artists and artists of color continued to be the dominant forces in the market for works by younger contemporaries. Sotheby’s proudly announced before “The Now” sale that, for the first time, female artists outnumbered men at one of its auctions.

Capitalizing on Simone Leigh’s representation of the United States at the Venice Biennale (where one of her sculptures also won a Golden Lion award), Sotheby’s included the life-size mixed media female head “Birmingham,” from 2012. This triggered another feeding frenzy of phone competition, the hammer finally falling at a record $2.2 million, 10 times the presale upper estimate.

Complex, multilayered paintings of the Los Angeles-based Christina Quarles have impressed critics and visitors at the Biennale’s central exhibition. This acclaim appeared to supercharge her market, with the 2019 canvas “Night Fell Upon Us Up On Us” soaring to a record $4.5 million. The previous auction high for her works had been $685,500.