Artists of color lead a swell of auction sales. Bidders at Sotheby's and Christie's welcome a shift towards diversity.

Just as the art market withstood the trauma of September 11 attacks and the economic plunge of 2008, so did the purchasing of high-priced paintings prevail at Sotheby's just recently during the first live contemporary auction since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Somehow, whatever crisis convulses the world, the wealthy continue to buy great work art.

In a deliberately sparse salesroom in Manhattan, with auction specialists beamed in from London and Hong Kong on screens, business was strong at Sotheby's, which raised a total of $218.3 million from 32 lots. Christie's raised $210.5 million on May 11 from 37 lots in a fully virtual sale.

Oliver Barker, a Sotheby's auctioneer, seemed palpably energized by the return to a live sale and the new format, at one point promoting the market ''back in fine form.''

The only clues that the world had changed over the past year was that the focus seemed to have shifted from the usual blue-chip art market darlings to artists of color, several of whom - Jordan Casteel, Mickalene Thomas and Rashid Johnson - set high prices for their works at auction.

Among the lots that generated particular bidding excitement was Robert Colescott's take on Washington crossing Delaware, placing George Washington Carver in command. It was purchased for $15.32 million, with fees, by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, whose opening has been delayed until 2023.

''This is such an essential work for our collection - it has not been out there in the public sphere,''  Sandra Jackson Dumont, the director and chief executive of the museum, said in a telephone interview after the sale on May 12.

''This work is a significant part of the history of artists. It's at once contemporary and historical.''

Also noteworthy was the competitive bidding for Salman Toor's 2019 painting ''The Arrival,'' which was recently on view in the artist's solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It sold for $867,000, more than 10 times its estimate.

''There seems to be incredible energy for a new generation of artists that are looking at issues of our time, such as race, gender and sexuality,'' said Abigail Asher, an art adviser, who saw the bidding as partly a response to current events like the Black Lives Matter movement.

''There is a dynamism both in the art that they are creating and the prices they are achieving.''

In addition, Banksy's ''Love is in the Air'' sold for $12.9 million over a high estimate of $5 million, the first work at auction for which Sotheby's accepted cryptocurrency.

By contrast, the energy seemed to drain from the rooms when it came to the more conventional contemporary market stars.

Strong bidding from collectors across the globe also helped reinforce the idea that auction houses' embracing of online sales, which started during the pandemic, might finally be paying off after a year in which global auction sales declined by 26 percent.

Still unclear is whether the current interest in artists of color will last. But for two nights that week, it felt as if a new world was in the offing., one in which work by a Ghanaian painter like Amoako Boafo could sell for twice the high estimate - and longtime auctioneer would have to beg the crowd to ''keep those eyes awake'' as they bid on Marc Chagall.

The World Students Society thanks authors Zachary Small and Robin Pogrebin.


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