Catch a Rising Star at the Auction House

When you want to determine the value of an acre of land, you call an assessor. When you want a value for your jewelry, you find an appraiser with a loupe. And when you want to know the value of a work of art — well, here it gets tricky. Painting isn’t priced like real estate, at so many dollars a square foot. Sculpture can’t be valued against objective criteria, like the four C’s you have for diamonds.

All you’ve got is a shared sense of the importance and rarity of some useless object of beauty. Until very recently, that value was determined by a shadowy social collectivity called the art world: curators, scholars, editors, educators, even the odd critic. Now those old gatekeepers no longer have much of a say.

A scene from Sotheby’s auction of the Macklowe collection on May 16, which brought the total for two sales to $922 million.Credit…Julian Cassady, via Sotheby’s

What can you say about the past two weeks’ sales of modern and contemporary art in New York except that they made even the 1980s and 2000s look like ancient history? There was the court-ordered sale of the collection of the divorced Harry and Linda Macklowe: $922 million in two tranches, capped with Monday’s eight-figure sales of Rothkos and Richters at Sotheby’s. We had the panoramic Basquiat that brought $85 million at Phillips and the $195 million Warhol at Christie’s. Newest and most noteworthy were the miles-over-the-estimate hammers for untested, unheralded painters, more often than not women, often with aggressive galleries behind them but little museum credibility or public esteem. And you thought the worst inflation right now was at Whole Foods. …

React how you like to these vertiginous prices for rising stars — though remember, the young artists don’t get a cut of auction flips. Amazement would be a valid response. Nausea, too. My own reaction, sitting these past two weeks in the salesrooms or hovering in the back with the cleaning staff, was something more like anaphylactic shock. Even after years of being inured to artistic price tags as arbitrary as Social Security numbers (one tries, as a critic forming a judgment, to pay them no mind), I watched the total, and possibly permanent, supersedure of the old establishment by speculative hype as if I were no longer alive at all.

Amoako Boafo’s “Yellow Dress” (2018) sold for $819,000 at Christie’s “21st Century” sale, over an estimate of $250,000-$350,000. The image was part of a Dior Men’s advertising campaign.Credit…Amoako Boafo/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Christie’s

Over and over these past two weeks, at Christie’s “21st Century” sale, Sotheby’s “The Now” and Phillips’s contemporary extravaganza, the highest multiples went to the youngest artists, mostly working in decorative forms, and often dated 2020 or later. Naïve portraits by the hyped Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo (b. 1984), whose work appears in reproductions on Dior men's wear (just like KAWS!), realized over $800,000 at Christie’s on an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000, and more than $1 million at Sotheby’s. A barely dry 2021 painting by a certain Lauren Quin (b. 1992), retreading the digitally informed abstractions of Laura Owens and Kerstin Brätsch, came in at $529,000 at Sotheby’s, 10 times the estimate. At Christie’s, the works no longer even appear physically on an auction block, but on large LED screens — as if a painting was one more nonfungible token (NFT), which it might as well be if it ends up hanging in a tax-exempt Swiss or Singaporean freeport.

With millions in your purse you could take home some recent paintings of real interest, such as landscapes by the late Canadian-Hong Kong painter Matthew Wong — or a vacuous parody of an 18th-century aristocratic portrait of a lady by the Polish painter and Gagosian protégée Ewa Juszkiewicz (b. 1984), which brought $1.56 million, more than five times the estimate. Pastiches and reboots of the French ancien régime have become a favorite of the global collecting class, especially from Flora Yukhnovich (b. 1990), who cites the rapper Doja Cat as an influence for her Rococo-meets-Photoshop kitsch. A painting of hers brought $630,000 in Phillips’s day sale, six times over the estimate. It is easier to decorate like Marie-Antoinette when you have no fear of the guillotine.

Anna Weyant’s “Summertime” (2020) was estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 and brought $1.5 million at Christie’s on May 9.Credit…Christie’s

All three auction houses opened their evening young-art sales with the Canadian painter Anna Weyant (b. 1995), the fortnight’s breakout star. Weyant, who trained in a Chinese art academy and signs her paintings with a heart emoji, has as yet won scant critical or curatorial attention, but she has had three solo exhibitions and now joined the stable of Gagosian (whose principal, Larry Gagosian, happens to be her boyfriend).

At Christie’s I watched a Hong Kong-based auctioneer cajole bid after bid from the phone bank — “It’s ahead of you now,” “Try 800, please?” and then, coyly, “Make it one million” — for a scene of a recumbent woman with hair worthy of a Pantene Pro-V campaign. It ended up netting $1.5 million, while Weyant’s buxom brunette tumbling out of her dress made $1.6 million at Sotheby’s. There’s a not-uninteresting frisson of Chinese cynical realists like Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang in her waxen tableaus, though her most direct antecedent is the Scottish commercial artist Jack Vettriano, another painter of sentimental erotica who proves there’s no accounting for taste.

There’s something extraordinary about all this: A bull run for art comes not only against a sliding equities market (though art price corrections often soon follow), but also in a moment of widespread high-cultural malaise. At the biennials, in the magazines, in the M.F.A. programs, the tone right now is stubbornly backward-looking, capable of little beyond auto-critique and enduring a bona fide crisis of confidence.

Matthew Wong’s “Green Room” (2017). The critically acclaimed painter died in 2019. Several Asian bidders propelled the work to his auction high price of $5.3 million on May 10 at Christie’s, over an estimated $1.5 million-$2 million.Credit…Matthew Wong/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Christie’s

But in the sales room, none of this has happened. Here is a parallel art world in which hope springs eternal. Demand for artists at the beginning of what they must hope will be a long career outstrips not only more established names, but also the promising talents singled out in Artforum, showcased in the Whitney Biennial or seen in the booths of the younger galleries at the Frieze art fair. That almost all these hyped artists are women and people of color is not incidental, surface diversification being a key strategy to solidify the status quo. Give away a little social capital and you can keep all the financial capital for yourself, and even lower your tax bill in the process.

For the rising stars, much of this is a simple question of supply and demand, with sky-high auction prices driven by wealthy but less established collectors — many in China, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia — who couldn’t get in on the action when a gallery first offered the works. What interests this critic (b. 1983) are not the prices themselves — money comes and goes — but the mechanisms that determine these prices: who used to assign value and who does now.

Only a decade ago, museum legitimization and academic praise were still key to determining financial value; changing tastes may have pushed prices for Pollock and Warhol past those for Old Masters and Impressionists, but at least historians and curators were on board. Now, the collectors’ hunger comes first, stoked largely via Instagram and other digital networks. The auction house, through glossy catalogs and (increasingly) online offerings, can magic up artistic legitimacy that once only museums or scholars could assign. And then, when the gavel falls, a larger cultural credibility can be retroactively produced through gala receptions, fashion collaborations, tax-exempt conferences and other marketing activities.

Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” (1964) sold for $195 million at Christie’s on May 9.Credit…Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Do this right and you can even make a profit. As the market reporter Katya Kazakina recently explained in Artnet News, galleries with a hot market star on their hands increasingly favor collectors who can “buy one, give one”: in other words, purchase two works in a show and commit to donating one to a public museum. If you give the second painting immediately to a nonprofit, you can deduct only the purchase price from your taxes — but if you wait a year, then you can deduct its “fair market value,” that is, the price it would fetch on the auction block. Given the yawning disparity between gallery and auction prices, this means that, if the museum accepts, everyone comes out a winner: The artist gets her work in a museum, the dealer gets paid faster, and the collector gets a hefty write-off.

But are these paintings — and it’s painting, more than all other media, that participates in this shell game — worthy of entering a museum at all? That’s a determination only history can make, but I’d observe that the time between a new work’s creation, digital dissemination, purchase and resale has become so compressed that the old legitimation mechanisms simply cannot function. It may sound anti-elitist, but it’s really a displacement of one elite (museums, with larger libraries) by another (bidders, with much larger checkbooks), and it forms part of a larger, and, in the end, hazardous cultural reversal in which numerical measurements, measured in dollars or in likes, are the only records of quality or importance. They may be marketed as the next Basquiat, but a lot of these paintings feel more like the 1 percent’s version of the Museum of Ice Cream: a digitally circulated petty amusement, though one that may cost the same as a house in Deer Valley.

You remember Oscar Wilde’s aphorism from “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Culture was one of the last domains in neoliberal times that tried, at least a little, to hold up a distinction between the two, between, to put it bluntly, the market and our lives. The cynics of this digital age have had their ultimate victory by rendering price and value synonymous, and we’re in serious trouble if our cultural institutions, on the altar of inclusion and anti-elitism, accelerate their own capitulation to acclaim via algorithm.

Here is the game: Collectors are harnessing the last remaining drops of social esteem and refinement associated with museums to promote what the Harvard historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, in an earlier moment of crazy painting prices (the ’80s), called “the luxury products of a fictitious high culture.” And here is the corollary: It is painting, not the NFT, that became the archetypical medium of personal marketing and digital folly.