Njideka Akunyili Crosby was painting in her high-raftered studio in Los Angeles in early 2017, when she got the text from a friend. Just a few years earlier, she had been selling works for $ 3,000 apiece. Now, one of her paintings had just sold at Christie’s in London for $ 3 million, more than six times its estimate.
It has been a jet-propelled rise to the top of the contemporary art world for Ms. Akunyili Crosby—a far cry from the small town in eastern Nigeria where she grew up. The artist, 35 years old, has since won a MacArthur “genius” grant. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and London’s Tate Modern have come calling. At least 20 public museums are on a waiting list for works she hasn’t painted yet.
Yet when that text arrived it made Ms. Akunyili Crosby uneasy. She’d seen what happened to others caught up in the market frenzy.
Collectors in the booming contemporary art world, the engine of the global art market, are voracious for fresh stars. They have started to throng around the handful of “it” artists who emerge in any given season. That drives prices sky high and often sets them up for a crash.
Four years ago, collectors were clamoring for abstracts by Parker Ito, another young artist. Over a matter of months, his auction prices tripled, to roughly $ 94,000. Then sellers angling to profit from the attention flooded his market, and demand dropped off the following year. Today, Mr. Ito’s auction prices rarely top $ 5,000. Mr. Ito declined to comment.
Buyers speculated on Sterling Ruby’s spray-painted abstracts, paying as much as $ 1.7 million four years ago for pieces like “SP51.” Last year, works from the same series were auctioned for roughly a third as much. Mr. Ruby declined to comment.
And then there are artists who have all but disappeared from rotation in major auction catalogs after enjoying a few seasons of ubiquity.
“A lot of people in the art business get young artists and just wreck them—they ruin them,” said Randall Exon, a studio art professor at Swarthmore College who taught Ms. Akunyili Crosby.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby’s dealer at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, Glenn Scott Wright, said he’s not worried about her longevity and told her this pump-and-dump initiation is “the nature of the beast now.”
Last year, global auction sales totaled roughly $ 28.5 billion, up 27% from the year before. Contemporary art—created by those born after 1910—accounted for about 46% of fine-art auction sales last year, according to Clare McAndrew of research firm Arts Economics.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby said she’s grateful for her success, but wishes someone had taught her how to navigate the attention. She’s felt naively exploited at times. She’s skittish about showing in New York galleries after getting entangled in a legal dispute with one. Auctions are particularly nerve-racking. If bidders push up prices too quickly, her gallery may not be able to persuade new buyers to pay similarly high amounts. That can gut an artist’s price levels permanently.
She is getting savvier, learning ways to steer her works to buyers who might not resell them quickly for profits. But the ultimate control over her work and her career remains elusive.
“My friends tell me I should just be happy my works are selling, and I am,” she said. The marketplace is now her tightrope. “It’s scary how vulnerable I still feel.”
From Home to Harlem
Njideka Akunyili (in-jee-DECK-uh ack-un-YEE-lee) Crosby grew up far from the frenzied art market, in Enugu, Nigeria, where she and her five siblings spoke Igbo interchangeably with English.
Her father, J.C. Akunyili, was a doctor at a local university hospital; her mother, Dora, was a pharmacology professor who went on to oversee Nigeria’s food and drug agency. Money was tight for luxuries such as toys, so the children usually made their own. Ms. Akunyili Crosby once made a doll for her sister by attaching a ping-pong ball to a matchbox.
In 1997, her mother applied for and won America’s green-card lottery, offered to 50,000 people a year selected at random. Ms. Akunyili and her husband stayed in Nigeria, but with the green card they were able to send their children to the U.S. to study.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby first attended a community college in Philadelphia, then was admitted to Swarthmore College. She intended to become a doctor, like her father. On a lark, she took an art class and fell in love with drawing and painting. She also met her husband, Justin, in college.
After graduating in 2004 with a degree in biology and studio art, she moved home for six months and realized the Nigeria she knew as a girl—a culture that prized tea and tins of corned beef over local fare because of its colonial connections—was rapidly changing. The stylish young women she saw were wearing traditional Nigerian fabrics and going to Nollywood films made by and starring Nigerians. “It was so exciting to see people reclaiming their traditions and transforming them,” she said.
She decided she had to paint contemporary Nigeria, and the disconnect she felt living so far away. Back in the U.S., she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before eventually ending up in the prestigious master of fine arts program at Yale. She initially struggled—a friend and former classmate, Christian Flynn, recalls students staring perplexed at one of her nude-couple paintings—but she kept experimenting.
The fall of her second year, she hit upon the style she is known for today: lush scenes of herself and her family members dressed fashionably and hanging out in homes in cities like Lagos, New Haven, Conn., or Los Angeles. Her interiors are embedded with objects like teapots, plastic dolls and potted plants that touch on her feelings about intimacy, migration and juggling old traditions with new. She often tops her compositions with transfer-printed photographs of Nigerian politicians or pop-culture stars, creating a silk-screen effect.
“Her work is the strongest painting I’ve seen in a long time,” said artist Charles Gaines. “When black people paint, we assume they’re dealing with race or politics, and that’s a postcolonial problem that was unanswered until Njideka,” he added. “She’s painting her ordinary.”
Ms. Akunyili Crosby arrived just as the market was poised to propel her, spurred by museums and collectors who have started to champion black artists from Africa as well as from the U.S.
It didn’t take long for her works to catch the attention of a handful of dealers and collectors who regularly make the rounds of top art schools every spring to scout potential talent.
One of the regular scouts was Jack Tilton, who ran an eponymous gallery in New York and who died last year. His wife, Connie Rogers Tilton, said he was immediately intrigued.
Mr. Tilton offered to pay $ 5,000 for “I Refuse to Be Invisible,” a painting of Ms. Akunyili Crosby dancing with her husband, in which she stares out confidently at the viewer. She accepted. The sum would pay several months’ rent.
Another New York dealer, Jessica Fredericks, offered to include three of Ms. Akunyili Crosby’s paintings in a group show at her gallery, Fredericks & Freiser. Ms. Fredericks asked to buy one of the works, and said she would try to sell the others to collectors, Ms. Akunyili Crosby said. At the opening, the artist later told friends, Ms. Fredericks handed her a check for the sale of all three works for $ 8,000 each, minus a 10% collector’s discount.
The next game-changer was winning a prized yearlong residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York in 2011-12. Thelma Golden, the museum’s longtime director, has a reputation for finding and nurturing art stars. Ms. Akunyili Crosby painted a dozen works that year—her most productive to date.
Making Her Market
As her residency was winding down, Mr. Tilton, who was acting as one of her unofficial dealers by this point, offered her a solo booth at one of the world’s most prestigious art fairs, Art Basel in Switzerland. For decades, tens of thousands of collectors have descended for a week each June to see works from 300 galleries from around the world.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby gave him a group of works she’d painted during her residency. Mr. Tilton told her that Don and Mera Rubell, major Miami collectors known for championing young artists, had expressed interest in buying a work, she said, and she agreed the connection to their public collection could boost her profile. She suggested Mr. Tilton give them a first chance to buy “5 Umezebi St, New Haven, Enugu,” which showed off her signature style.
Mr. Tilton told her he would try, Ms. Akunyili Crosby said. Instead he sold the work to one of his longtime clients, Craig Robins, a Miami real-estate developer who started tracking the artist when she was in Harlem. Mr. Robins said he was unaware of Ms. Akunyili Crosby’s request.
The Rubells said they stopped by Mr. Tilton’s booth but were told they were too late, she said. Ms. Akunyili Crosby started wondering if galleries were looking out for her interests.
“It’s first come, first served, and we were absolutely looking out for her,” Ms. Rogers Tilton said.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby decided to start an archive with detailed ownership records. That way, she could keep track of her paintings in case other galleries or curators ever asked to show them. She asked Mr. Tilton and the other gallery in New York, Fredericks & Freiser, for the names of people to whom they had sold her early works.
She didn’t know that dealers often closely guard identities and afterlives of the pieces they sell, even keeping artists in the dark. Some worry artists may start selling directly to their collectors, cutting out dealers as middlemen. Other galleries might poach their collectors as well. Some artists don’t care, but when they do, disputes can arise. This is what happened with Ms. Akunyili Crosby and Fredericks & Freiser.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby said she isn’t allowed to discuss the details of the legal dispute she raised with the gallery in 2012 because she later reached a confidential settlement. She referred questions about the dispute to her lawyer, Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento.
According to other dealers and friends she discussed the matter with at the time, including her Yale classmate Mr. Flynn, Ms. Akunyili Crosby started sending emails to the gallery asking for the names of the people who had bought her works from the show just after graduation.
At first, these people say, the gallery told her it sold two of the pieces to collectors, in addition to the one painting the gallery bought. After she pressed for more specifics, the gallery said the buyers were actually one person. Moreover, this buyer had changed his mind and sent the paintings back, friends said.
Ms. Akunyili Crosby told friends she hired Mr. Sarmiento, who sent the gallery a letter seeking the whereabouts of the works. She told them she worried the gallery hadn’t sold the works and instead was holding them to potentially resell for a higher price later. This stockpiling move is relatively common among galleries, and it isn’t frowned upon so long as the artist is aware of the arrangement.
James Greenberg, a lawyer for the gallery, said the gallery couldn’t discuss the matter and confirmed that “an agreement was reached privately.” Mr. Sarmiento also confirmed a settlement was signed but declined to discuss the dispute further.
As part of the 2013 settlement, Ms. Akunyili Crosby’s friends said the artist was allowed to buy one of her works back for around $ 20,000, or 150% more than the original price. She bought “Nyado: The Thing Around her Neck.”
Around this time, Christie’s expert Vivian Brodie said she and her colleagues started getting inquiries from collectors. Did the auction houses have any work by the artist coming up for bid?
In early September 2016, David Galperin and three other experts at Sotheby’s auction house huddled around a computer in their New York office to look at an image emailed to them by a potential consignor. The 5-foot-tall work on offer, “Drown,” showed a naked couple in bed, the woman’s coffee-colored limbs wrapped around a pale man.
In today’s contemporary art market, frustrated collectors who can’t wrangle a work by a coveted artist from their galleries often turn to auction houses for help. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips can promise vast sums to sellers to entice them to part with pieces by hot-right-now artists. In this arena, auction houses no longer serve as disinterested brokers; they’re market makers.
Mr. Galperin and his team agreed to try out Ms. Akunyili Crosby for Sotheby’s high-stakes November sales in New York. “Drown,” which had a low estimate of $ 200,000, sold for $ 1 million.
Mr. Galperin said that price “got the ricochet started” and soon “works were coming out of the woodworks,” supplied by people who had collected her pieces early on. The following spring, six more works surfaced in major sales.
In March 2017, a 2013 portrait of her eldest sister titled “The Beautyful Ones” sold in London at Christie’s for $ 3 million—prompting the congratulatory text from her friend. The seller was a Belgian diamond jeweler, Charles Berkovic, who had bought it three years earlier for around $ 20,000.
After the sale, Ms. Akunyili Crosby said she asked Mr. Tilton to contact his buyers of her paintings to ask if they would be willing to hold on to her works for the time being—or at least resell pieces privately, rather than at auction. She wanted to make sure her prices didn’t climb to levels she couldn’t sustain after the fever invariably cooled off.
Roughly a month later, Mr. Tilton, who was battling cancer, called to tell Ms. Akunyili Crosby that his gallery had consigned her seminal early work, “I Refuse to Be Invisible,” to Christie’s marquee May sales, she said. Christie’s estimated it could resell the work for between $ 1.5 million and $ 2 million.
“Can you back out of the deal? Is it too late?” she said she asked him. Auction houses aren’t obligated to tell anyone the names of its winning bidders. A contract had already been signed, he told her.
He died on May 7, nearly two weeks before the sale. His wife said the sale was a way to get his affairs in order.
The work attracted bids from at least four American collectors. The winner, who remains anonymous, paid $ 2.6 million.
The following night at Sotheby’s, Miami collector Eric Feder auctioned off another work by Ms. Akunyili Crosby, “Thread,” that he had bought for around $ 30,000 in 2011. The painting sold for $ 1 million.
Minutes later in the same sale, Theo Danjuma, the son of a Nigerian ex-general, sold the artist’s “Harmattan Haze” for $ 1.2 million after paying roughly $ 32,000 for it less than two years before.
Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Akunyili Crosby was flattered that people bid on her work, but she couldn’t shake the fear that she had lost control over her prices. Her new London gallery, Victoria Miro, promised to hold off on selling any works to private collectors and sell only to museums.
Since then, another six pieces have filtered into auctions, but most have been minor, early works. She managed to convince at least one Los Angeles collecting couple to resell another portrait in her “Beautyful Ones” series through her gallery instead of putting it up for auction.
She continues to funnel new paintings like “Dwell: Aso Ebi” to museums such as the Baltimore Museum of Art. The museum, which recently gave her a solo show, didn’t divulge the price it paid. Ms. Akunyili Crosby said she tries to sell pieces to museums for prices in the low six figures.
She’s also created murals in Los Angeles and in Brixton, England, that can’t be auctioned because they are temporary pieces.
In a recent twist, she donated one of her paintings to the Studio Museum of Harlem to resell in a benefit auction. Sotheby’s estimated her 2017 botanical piece, “Bush Babies,” would sell for up to $ 800,000 on May 18. It sold for $ 3.4 million, a record for the artist.
—Interactive design by Tyler Paige
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Write to Kelly Crow at firstname.lastname@example.org