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Speculators Win Big With Bets on Young Artists


Three years ago, her large paintings were selling at a little-known gallery for about $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 Britain’s finance minister, Rishi Sunak.

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

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

The heat in the market for Yukhnovich’s exuberant semiabstract paintings is symptomatic of the phenomenon known as “flipping.” When demand for certain artists significantly outstrips supply, those fortunate enough to have acquired their works via galleries can make enormous profits if they offer them at auction. Galleries are keen to avoid this: A frothy resale market can make it difficult for artists to sustain long-term careers.

Back in 2014, during the last speculative frenzy for young, emerging art, abstract paintings by Lucien Smith, which were fashionable at the time, were routinely being flipped at auction for multiples of their gallery prices. But the market quickly cooled and, by 2015, a disillusioned Smith had stopped exhibiting with commercial galleries.

“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 painting style that dematerializes figure-cluttered subjects by old masters into swirling flecks of color. Her latest works in the Victoria Miro show are marked between $135,000 and $470,000 (100,000-350,000 pounds), reflecting how the artist’s gallery prices have “slowly and carefully risen over the past 18 months,” according to Carey-Williams.

Yukhnovich’s auction prices, on the other hand, have risen into a different realm, which only encourages more would-be buyers to join the line.

The stakes for gambling on young contemporary art have never been higher.

In 2014, works by artists younger than 40 raised $181 million at auction. Last year, they turned over a record $450 million, a 275% increase on 2020, according to Artprice, a company based in France that tracks international auction sales. Eyebrows were raised during that earlier frothing of the market when paintings by artists like Smith, Jacob Kassay and Oscar Murillo were flipped to make auction prices of more than $300,000. Recent salesroom prices for Yukhnovich, Matthew Wong and Avery Singer have added an extra digit.

“The market has expanded since 2014,” said Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser based in New York. “There are many more people and there is a lot of money in the system. There’s competition for just a few artists, and this leads to exponentially higher prices.”

The buyers of big-ticket contemporary art are also increasingly younger, Cromwell said. A new wave of participants in their 40s, 30s and even 20s, enriched by inheritance and the tech economy, is transforming the market, she added. “There’s been this youthquake in terms of who’s buying the work and who’s distributing it,” she said.

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

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

“I came across Flora on Instagram, and I definitely wasn’t alone,” said Matt Watkins, a director of Parafin gallery in London, which held a breakout solo exhibition of Yukhnovich’s paintings in 2019. Influencers like Carey-Williams and young art historian Katy Hessel, whose thegreatwomenartists account has 250,000 followers, were key early enthusiasts, as was ArtForum’s Instagram account, which has 1.2 million followers. — NYT

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