Artists in the Whitney Biennial Are Seeing Their Values Soar

The critically praised Whitney Biennial has turned into a launchpad for artists at auction.

In the past decade, paintings by the artist Henry Taylor have appeared at auction a total of 19 times. Over the course of two days later this month, four works by Taylor will hit the auction block at Christie's and Sotheby's—a 21 percent increase in his total auction volume in less than 48 hours. 

Miss Kelley, 2010, by Henry Taylor, is estimated to sell between $50,000 and $70,000 at Sotheby's New York.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

The rapid rise of Taylor's secondary market can be attributed, in part, to the fact that Taylor's work is currently appearing in the widely acclaimed 2017 Whitney Biennial. The progressive show appears to be boosting interest in several artists at this spring's major New York auctions.

“There’s no doubt that collectors troll these biennials at the openings and attempt to ferret out who will be the hotshot artist or artists, and they corner the gallerists to secure the ‘glittering trophies,'” said Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group in New York. “The auctions that take place after the biennials are part and parcel of the same kind of market mechanism.”

Taylor's most recent auction result is also his record: Five days after the Whitney Biennial opened, his 2007 painting, The Young, the Brave, Bobby Hutton R.I.P. Oakland, California, sold for $235,000, above the high estimate of $45,000, at Christie's New York.

Short vs. Long-Term Effects

Museum shows are no guarantee that an artist’s work will take off; in the year 2012, when Taylor had a solo show at MoMA PS1 in New York, not a single one of his paintings came to auction, according to Artnet. But certain shows, particularly ones that are well-received, can have a demonstrable and immediate effect on artists’ prices. (New York Times critic Roberta Smith described this one as "spatially gracious to art and visitors alike, and exceptionally good looking, with an overall mood of easy accessibility.")  

“Critically, it’s a great way to take the pulse from a time period,” said the art adviser Lisa Schiff. “But sadly, I sense that it’s not so far-reaching—mostly it has short- term market implications.”

I don't Deserve These Flowers, 2010, by Shara Hughes, is estimated to sell between $8,000 and $12,000 at Phillips New York.

Courtesy of Phillips

Shara Hughes, whose lush, occasionally dissonant paintings were featured on the fifth floor of the Biennial, will have an artwork in each of Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s upcoming contemporary day sales. Phillips’s Hughes work has a high estimate of $12,000; both Sotheby’s and Christie’s works carry a high estimate of $8,000.

Rock Collection, 2007, by Shara Hughes, is estimated to fetch between $6,000 and $8,000 at Sotheby's New York.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Previously, Hughes’s paintings had come up to auction just 17 times, and six of those lots failed to sell at all.

But in the same auction at Christie's five days after the Biennial opening, where Taylor's painting set a record, a painting by Hughes also sailed past its high estimate of $7,000, selling for $40,000. Previously, her sales record (for one lot that included two paintings) was just under $9,000 at Phillips London in 2014.

Stairs Upstairs, 2007, by Shara Hughes, is estimated to sell between $6,000 and $8,000 at Christie's New York.

Courtesy of Christie's

“We’ve seen an increased demand, and we were aware of the Biennial when we priced this [Hughes painting],” said John McCord, the head of Phillips’s day sale. “We’re quite confident in the estimate, and we expect it to sell above the high estimate.” 

Supply and Demand

Auctions are often considered barometers for demand. Artists make limited amounts of work, and dealers often offer that work to museums and favored collectors before anyone else. That means that ostensibly popular artists rarely have that status challenged by the open market. With many "hot" artists, in other words, it's hard to really know just how widely desirable they really are.

Ceviche and Peruvian Meat, 2011, by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, carries an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000 at Phillips New York.

Courtesy of Phillips

A work by the Los Angeles artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer is a case in point: Her painting Ceviche and Peruvian Meat, which was painted in 2011, will go on sale at Phillips with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. This will be the first time that one of Dupuy-Spencer’s paintings has ever come to auction, so it will be a test. She is in the Biennial, which bodes well.

“We want the market to be successful in the long term as much as the artists and dealers do,” said McCord. “It’s the first time [Dupuy-Spencer] is coming up to auction, so we’re obviously not throwing three [of her paintings] on the market.” 

Christopher Wool is an artist who has been hot in the secondary market for years—he appeared in the Biennial in 1989, and now his artwork summons millions at auction. That same untitled work (the word “Please” is repeated six times in giant letters) that appeared in 1989 will go to the block at Christie’s contemporary evening sale this spring with an estimate of $15 million to $20 million.

But Wool's work took decades to reach those prices. While some of the Whitney- anointed artists might be the subjects of post-Biennial enthusiasm, "for Henry Taylor, I see it more as a steady climb over the last two years," said Charles Moffett, the co-head of Sotheby's day sale. "If you look at the works that have come up at auction, there's been a pretty decent interest and incline in prices achieved, but not across the board. It's not all fireworks."

Broader Impact

Coincidental or not, galleries across New York are also showcasing Whitney Biennial artists. Rachel Uffner, the Lower East Side gallery that represents Hughes currently has a solo show of her work, Same Space Different Day, which opened April 30 and runs through June.

99, by Henry Taylor, carries an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000 at Christie's New York.

Courtesy of Christie's

At the Frieze fair, which opens on Friday, numerous galleries will include work by Biennial artists: New York's Mitchell Innes and Nash, which represents Pope.L, whose massive installation in the Whitney included hundreds of pieces of bologna affixed to the wall in pushpins, will be offering one of the artist’s (less perishable) photographs; the Los Angeles-based Night Gallery will feature works by Samara Golden, whose installation in the Whitney, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, included miniature interiors and a profusion of mirrors; and Mary Mary, a Glasgow gallery, will feature a booth with works by Aliza Nisenbaum, whose large-scale, figurative paintings of immigrants are also included in the Biennial.

What Can I Say?, 2011, by Henry Taylor, is estimated to sell between $40,000 and $60,000 at Christie's New York.

Courtesy of Christie's

Most of these artists, of course, have been represented by these galleries for years, and their inclusion in the fairs is a normal product of the artist/dealer relationship. In conjunction with the surge in auction lots, though, the number of Biennial-featured artists represents a distinct and unified momentum.

The question now is whether that momentum can be sustained. “If you go back to past biennials and auctions, you can see it’s a pattern that constantly repeats itself,” said Levin, the adviser. “It’s important to remember that the interest they generate is, in almost all cases, short-lived.”

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