It may not come as a surprise to learn that last week’s contemporary art auctions in London overwhelmingly favored YBAs—the group of largely Goldsmiths-educated artists who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and ‘90s. But it was a bit more unusual that the top seller at both the Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales was Glenn Brown, the London painter known for manipulating and distorting works by well-known artists throughout history, from Salvador Dalí to sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss.
Brown, who has referred to himself as a kind of artistic Dr. Frankenstein, saw his magnified re-imagining of a waylaid space station, inspired by Foss’s Floating Cities, sell for $3.7 million at Christie’s, which totaled $62 million at its two-day event. Another epic take on a Foss picture, this time of a spaceship crashing into a meteorite, sold for $5.8 million, well above its $4 million estimate, at Sotheby’s, which did $54 million overall. Brown's auction prices have been steadily climbing in recent years, topping out at Sotheby’s London in 2012 with a record $8 million.
Elsewhere at the weeklong run of sales, Christie’s brought in $2.8 million for a red canoe painting by Peter Doig, a peer of Brown's who has also had a momentous and record-breaking year in the market. And, at Sotheby’s, a painting by contemporary British landscape artist Hurvin Anderson—who has operated on the fringe of the YBAs for years but has only recently experienced mounting commercial success—sold for $452,000, nearly twice its estimate.
Meanwhile, women YBAs fared well at Christie’s $4.9 million “Thinking Big” sale of large-scale sculpture from the collection of Charles Saatchi, the megacollector who was famously an early champion of the group. Tracey Emin achieved a new auction record with the sale of To Meet My Past, a bed stitched with confessional embroidery that went for $781,000, making it the top lot of the session. Meanwhile, Rebecca Warren, a classmate of Glenn Brown's at Goldsmiths, sold a grouping of six headless clay figures for a record $626,000.
And let's not forgetDamien Hirst. The reigning monarch of the YBAs saw a butterfly-painting diptych overshoot its estimate to fetch $682,338, a 1994 bull's-head vitrine go for $740,478, and even an edition of his grotesque self-portrait with a corpse's severed head, bluntly titled With Dead Head, double its low estimate to make $96,000.
The younger generation fared well, too—particularly new young-British-artist-of-the-moment Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the 35-year-old Turner Prize contestant who stepped into the market big leagues when one of her paintings sold for almost three times its high estimate at Sotheby's, bringing in $84,662, while her imaginary group portrait at Christie's sold for $236,598. Should she win the prize this December, those prices might soon look cheap.
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