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Last week, Loic Gouzer’s auction app, Fair Warning, sold Matthew Wong’s 2017 oil painting Far Away Eyes for $575,000. Drawing a total of 13 bidders, the final hammer price outpaced the conservative pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 to show the continuing robust interest among buyers for the late painter’s work. The orange-hued landscape is the sixth work by the artist, who died by suicide in December 2019, to surface at auction.
Though smaller, the painting bears a resemblance to the record-setting 2018 work, The Realm of Appearances, sold for $1.82 million in Sotheby’s New York contemporary evening sale this June, which attracted a total of 58 bidders. The sale of Far Away Eyes marks the third highest public price achieved for Wong’s work, next to the 2018 interior Mood Room, which sold at Phillips in a contemporary evening sale for $848,000 against a low estimated value of $60,000 in July.
Although the small set of recent sales is not comprehensive, the near seven-week run for Wong’s market has yielded a trajectory typical of market performances for emerging commercial sensations—which tend to cool after an initial period of competitive bidding. Young figurative painter Tschabalala Self’s work went through a similar course, following the sale of her painting Star at Phillips in 2019, which sold for $350,000 against an estimate between $80,000 and $120,000. The work realized a 3,400 percent increase in value for the consignor who bought the work for around $10,000. Her record was achieved in February 2020 at Phillips, with the sale of Princess for $567,736, but the Spring and Summer auction series proved to be quiet for the artist. Posthumous sales of painter Noah Davis’s works also saw prices driven up rapidly in the past year, following a recent retrospective at David Zwirner. Davis’s In Search of Gallerius Maximumianus (2009) set a new record for the late artist, selling for $400,000 during Phillips March New Now sale, beating its high estimate of $80,000.
Between 2018 and 2019, Wong’s works found acclaim among critics for their melancholic reminiscence to post-Impressionism. The sharp rise in prices followed. The craze on the secondary market began with the sale of a small-scale untitled watercolor for six times its original estimate of $10,000 after attracting 26 bids in a Sotheby’s contemporary online sale, eventually placing with a buyer for $62,500.
While the auction app sale realized a solid result, the market price for Far Away Eyes is substantially lower, about half of the price for the record high figure paid for Realm of Appearances. The difference in quality between the two works and size could each be contributing factors to the dip, along with the disparity in scale of sales channels.
Sotheby’s live-streamed sale brought the Wong as the opening lot in its June contemporary art evening sale, which arguably drew a broader buyer base and bolstered competition among collectors for the first high quality Wong of the season. This framed an opportunity for clients to drive up the sale to an unprecedented seven-figure price.
The result on Fair Warning indicates that demand is on par with supply for Wong’s works. The slowed results point to a possibility that as each consecutive re-sale places a Wong painting in a new collection, the prospective buyer pool may be contracting and diluting competition. What has also become apparent in the pandemic era is that digital sales of high-caliber works face a crucial formatting challenge in competition with the global exposure and weight of promotional material for evening sale consignments. The timing and undisputed quality of Sotheby’s sale set an early high benchmark in Wong’s secondary market run that is proving to be difficult to match.