Yesterday's hopeful young artists have arrived ...

Modern artwork is very much in demand. John Windsor explains why
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Sotheby's summer contemporary art sales take place next week in what has become a supercharged market. This year, more names of young British artists have been appearing for the first time at auction than ever before.

Critics tut-tutted when rival Christie's announced a fast-forward in marketing, shifting the dateline for "modern" artists from 1870 to 1900 - and holding a contemporary sale in April of work produced only in the past 30 years, instead of since the war. It was a big-budget promotion with a hard-back sale catalogue full of explanatory essays aimed at rich new buyers.

By tradition, auctioneers play safe, selling only secondhand works by artists with an established track record. That suits dealers, whose nightmare is seeing work by a relatively unknown young artist, whose reputation they are nurturing, left ignominiously unsold at auction. Or, which is as bad, being forced to avoid such embarrassment by bidding up the price themselves.

There were mutterings before its successful April sale that, in trade jargon, Christie's was trying to force a secondary (secondhand) market onto a primary (fresh from dealer) market that needed a longer breathing space. In the event, Christie's sale raised pounds 2,826,370, selling 74 per cent by lot and 85 per cent by value. If there was a let-down, it was not among the YBAs, but among German first-timers such as Dieter Huber and Herwig Turk.

The moral is: time passes more quickly than we think. And the contemporary art market - especially for YBAs - is much stronger than most people thought. First-timers at Christie's such as Sarah Lucas, Sylvie Fleurie and Chris Ofili are not really YBAs any longer. They have CVs as long as your arm and waiting lists for their work. They are well able to withstand the love-it-or-leave-it brutality of the saleroom - and have been for some time.

The reason their work has not appeared at auction before has less to do with the hidebound scepticism of auctioneers than the fact that collector- investors in YBAs have been hanging on to their purchases from dealers, while watching their artists' profiles rise. As Sotheby's Elena Geuna put it: "The problem now is not how to sell it, but how to find enough of it."

The other confidence-boosting factor is that entry into the London auction market is not the make-or-break test of a young artist's reputation that it used to be. Although London has the most vibrant contemporary art scene in the world, the biggest reputation-making forum is not in London but at the big European contemporary art fairs, especially Basel in June, (more important even than Chicago), which is attended by everyone who is anyone in the contemporary art trade.

London auctioneers have been flitting to Basel, Cologne, Bologna, Madrid, and Berlin, where the art fair is only in its second year, eyeing up artworks and prices and watching reputations gain international status. The result in London this year is auctions of contemporary art that look daring, as if they were taking chances on new names, but which are virtually risk- free.

In fact, so strong is the demand for contemporary art generated by the London galleries - aided by the "Sensation" show and accelerated by their astute promotion at the big fairs - that there is now a whole string of young artists, both from Britain and abroad, whose work is exceeding gallery prices at auction. Yesterday's young hopefuls have arrived.

Sarah Lucas, for example - hitherto known as an up-and-coming YBA. But, surely, she's famous now. And at 35 about to become a not-so-young BA. That's the point. All of a sudden, hers is an established name. Her rude melons and cucumber on a mattress in the "Sensation" show added sparkle to her reputation but they alone did not make her bankable. In the past six years she has had solo shows in Geneva, New York, Rotterdam, Frankurt, Berlin and Cologne, besides London.

So when her plastic arms crossed in macho pose, "Get Hold of This" - bought from her gallery for $4,000 (pounds 2,500) in 1994-5 when her work was already selling out - appeared at Christie's in April with an estimate of pounds 4,000-pounds 6,500, those in the know were not surprised when it sold for pounds 13,800. Her gallerist, Sadie Coles, said of the high auction price: "It's simply a vindication of Sarah's hard work over the past few years".

Sylvie Fleurie, 37, lives and works in Geneva and is less well-known here. But in the past seven years she has had over 40 solo exhibitions. You might think some of her work flippant - such as her "Doll Platforms", three pairs of women's shoes on their boxes; the product perhaps, of idle daydreams and a carefree lifestyle. But consider her prolific output and all the travel, the shipping, the setting up of half a dozen shows a year. She, too, has toiled to establish a reputation. Investors look for such staying power.

At her auction debut at Christie's, her "Untitled (Vogue Cover)", estimated at pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000, fetched pounds 3,680.

If auctioneers continue to be selective and auction prices continue to exceed what a gallery would charge, then gallery prices are likely to rise in sympathy. There is a danger of a price spiral that could end in tears. The contemporary art market is robust now, but during the recession it showed itself to be the most fragile sector after Impressionists.

Meanwhile, the time it takes for an artwork bought fresh from a gallery to be sold at a profit at auction is getting shorter. The collage, oil and polyester "7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before the Divine Dung" by Chris Ofili, whose vigorous semi-abstract paintings featuring (odourless) elephant dung appeared in "Sensation", was bought for pounds 8,000 from the Victoria Miro gallery in London only a year ago. It sold at Christie's in April - an auction debut for Ofili - for pounds 10,925.

What to watch at Sotheby's next week? A feint and dreamy oil on canvas "Shadow No 68" by auction debutant Brad Lochore, a New Zealander, also represented by the Victoria Miro Gallery. It is estimated at pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000. His work sells for around pounds 6,000 in the gallery. His reputation has been rising quietly but steadily.

Lochore's painting is tucked away in the Part II sale - held during the day and lacking the evening glitter of Part I - along with the first work at auction by Jenny Saville, a painter of bulging human flesh discovered by Charles Saatchi, who snaps up her work. She recently sold a couple of canvases through the Daniel Tamplon gallery in Paris, but her work seldom reaches the open market and there is pent-up demand for it - at least in Britain. Her "Untitled" nude is estimated at pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000.

First-timer Douglas Gordon's 32 colour photographs "Storyboard For Monster" is estimated at pounds 3,500-pounds 4,500 and another first-timer, Julie Roberts, is represented by an oil and acrylic "Straight Jack With Head Gear", estimated at pounds 3,500-pounds 4,500.

Not all the first-timers have scored. At Christie's, an abstract in petrified acrylic by Graham Westfield - accepted for sale because his name was deemed to have potential - sold for pounds 1,725, below the pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 estimate. In the same sale, a drug-filled display cabinet titled "God", by Damien Hirst, leader of the Britpack, who, one suspects, will soon be called a "blue-chip" artist along with Klein and Fontana (members of the old firm still classified as "contemporary" according to Sotheby's post-1945 time-frame) sold for a sensational pounds 188,500. The estimate, pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000, had been considered "a bit hot" by Christie's Graham Southern.

Is there a chance that the market will now be glutted by profit-taking investors? Auctioneers are still choosy, and wisely so. But identical works from the same edition, appearing in different auctions, could start the rot. Thomas Ruff's colour photograph "Portrait (C. Pilar) made pounds 9,775 at Christie's. An identical image is estimated at only pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000 at Sotheby's next week. Someone, somewhere, could soon be kicking themselves.

Sotheby's Contemporary Art, Part I Thursday 2 July (7pm), Part II, Friday 3 July (10.30am): 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171 293 5000).

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