This past week, London’s March sales of modern and contemporary art chalked up £577.5 million ($760 million). Those results approached the high end of the presale estimates, and rode out the threat posed to the market by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The total was some 35% more than last year’s equivalent London sales.
While the market for blue-chip, tried and tested artists appeared secure, it was the relatively new artists selected for the auctions that experienced most competition from bidders. With record prices reaching 10 times the estimates seen frequently, auction houses are setting new price points for artists who have primarily been experiencing primary-market success. And whereas last year it appeared that Phillips had the monopoly on this “futures” aspect of the auctions, this year, Sotheby’s, with its dedicated “The Now” evening sale, and Christie’s in its day sales, appear to be taking up the challenge with many more “breakthrough” moments for artists than before.
For this column, I have selected eight artists who had breakthrough market moments, though at least another 16 could have qualified. One veteran dealer who was watching the sales asked me: “What is going on? I have never seen such activity going on at this end of the market before.”
Cool Cats (2019), Phillips London, lot 102
Estimate: £6,000–£8,000 ($7,866–$10,488)
Sold: £85,680 ($112,329)
Untitled 7 (2021), Phillips New York, “New Now” sale
Only two works by this popular thirtysomething Australian artist had been at auction prior to the March London sales, neither of which reached $10,000. However, both Sotheby’s and Phillips had picked up on the market whispers that demand for Kerwick’s work was building on the primary market, where he is represented by Vito Schnabel in the U.S. and Toby Clarke’s Vigo Galleryin the U.K.
First up was Sotheby’s, which saw Kerwick’s 2020 oil-on-paper painting of a lion attacking an imaginary double-headed quadruped for a record £27,640. But the record only lasted a day. At Phillips, there was a dainty oil and collage flower piece, Cool Cats (2019), much in the style of Jonas wood, with a £6,000–£8,000 estimate. This proved to be one of the most popular offerings of the week, with about 40 registered bidders from all over the globe, 10 of whom were new to Phillips, said Olivia Thornton, head of the department of 20th-century and contemporary art, Europe. She summarized the appeal of Kerwick’s work as “joyful and childlike.” The contestants hailed from South America, Asia, and the U.S., but were outgunned by a European collector who paid £85,680 ($112,329).
“That was about four times what we sell them for,” said gallerist Toby Clarke, who opens a London show of Kerwick’s work at Vigo on April 1st. Fans of Kerwick include serious collectors such as Bernard Arnault, Beth Rudin DeWoody, and Steven A. Cohen; Korean rap star T.O.P; and artists Mark Grotjahn and Richard Prince. The latter artist fanned the flame when he included Kerwick’s name on a list of favorite artists he posted on Instagram. More works by Kerwick are being sold in New York as I write, with the work Untitled 7 selling for $201,600 at Phillips against a $15,000–$20,000 estimate.