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At Christie’s ‘21st Century’ Auction, the Sound of Records Breaking for Women

Seven artists achieved new sales benchmarks at Christie’s Contemporary Art sale in New York on Monday night, including Simone Leigh, a star of the 2022 Venice Biennale, and Robin F. Williams, a figurative painter still in her 30s.

Lively bidding from inside the sale room at Christie’s helped the auction house sell nearly $99 million worth of paintings and sculptures, with buyer’s fees. Experts said the gains were evidence of a growing preference among collectors for younger and more diverse artists than the market typically shows during one of its biggest sales weeks of the year.

Interest in female figurative painters who are not necessarily household names is rising for artists like Danielle McKinney, Rebecca Ackroyd and Williams. Reviewing Williams’s show of paintings at P.P.O.W. in 2017, Roberta Smith wrote that she was “extravagantly in-your-face regarding execution, style, image and social thrust. They take aim at the impossible idealizations of women in both art and advertising,” with what she called “a new kind of cool yet visceral bravura.”

For artists like Ackroyd, it was also an auction debut — one that saw the painter’s “Garden Tender” painting of studded leather belts strapped around a woman’s chest sell for more than double its estimate at $56,700, with buyers’ fees. Lower estimates helped propel prices.

More established artists like the sculptor Simone Leigh also made their mark. Leigh’s 2019 bronze work, called “Stick,” sold for $2.7 million with fees. It was a benchmark for the artist, who represented the United States in the 2022 Venice Biennale. Diane Arbus, one of the most original American photographers, who died in 1971, reached a high of $1 million for a box of 10 photographs.

The Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui also achieved a sales high with an installation called “Prophet” made from bottle caps that were interwoven with copper wire. The assemblage fetched nearly $2.2 million with fees, more than double its high estimate.

“Christie’s is thrilled to have achieved a fantastic result in the first-ever evening sale that was majority female,” said Isabella Lauria, who led the “21st Century” evening sale at Christie’s. The company sold nearly all of its 26 lots, although one was withdrawn before the sale. (A similar sale last November of 35 lots brought in $114 million.)

“Auction houses used to shy away from untested art, especially in evening sales,” said Natasha Degen, chairwoman of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who believes that tastes are changing. “Of the 26 lots, eight — almost a third — were by artists born in either the ’80s or ’90s. Seven — over a quarter — were made in 2019 or after.”

The engaged bidding was a change of pace following the company’s lackluster opening to the spring sales season last week. Solid sales but few fireworks for 16 paintings from the collection of Condé Nast’s former chairman, S.I. Newhouse, had left the industry wondering if the market was cooling after the speculative fever of the last couple of years that reached its height during the $1.5 billion sale for art owned by the Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen last November.

“The most glaring thing to me is that several of the artists who were at the center of the most heated bidding wars in these same auctions five years ago have now become kind of solidly, boringly blue-chip to bidders,” said Tim Schneider, an art business editor at Artnet News who followed the sale. “A Mark Bradford hammering $400,000 below its low estimate? A Rashid Johnson hammering right at its low estimate? Millionaires were practically punching each other in the mouth to pay above the high estimate for these artists in May 2018.”

But some blue-chip artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, still found an audience. Experts said Basquiat’s 1983 painting “El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)” — known as “History of the Black People” — exemplified his penchant for history paintings. It sold for more than $67.1 million after buyers’ fees, making it the fourth most expensive work by the artist that has been sold at auction. (The top work, an untitled 1982 painting, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017.)

But an interest for younger and more diverse artists was obvious.

“Historically even the women who do the best in the market tended to be super consolidated” around a couple of popular names,” Degen pointed out. “But it’s no longer just Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois.”