A LARGE-SCALE, ABSTRACT, two-part painting by Julie Mehretu set a new auction record. The untitled work made in 2001 sold earlier this month in the Contemporary Evening Auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for more than $9.3 million (HKD 72,979,000), establishing a new high-mark for an African-born artist. Mehretu was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Michigan, and has spent her career in New York City.

The Oct. 5 result far exceeded the previous record held for 15 years by Marlene Dumas, a white South African artist. In 2008, Dumas’s painting, “The Visitor” (1995), sold for more than $6.3 million (3,177,250 British Pounds) at Sotheby’s London.

Lot 1206: JULIE MEHRETU (b. 1970), Untitled, 2001 (acrylic, ink and graphite on canvas, in 2 parts, each: 182.8 x 243.8 cm. / 72 x 96 inches, overall: 182.8 x 487.6 cm. / 72 x 192 inches). | Estimate $7,661,940-$10,215,920 (HKD 60,000,000-80,000,000). Sold for $9,319,345 (HKD 72,979,000) fees included. RECORD


Male artists dominate nearly every aspect of the international art market, most significantly when it comes to price. The African art market is unique in this respect with work by women garnering the highest results at auction. In addition to Mehretu and Dumas, the top ranks include South African artist Irma Stern, who is also white, and Nigerian American Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who lives and works in Los Angeles.

Mehretu’s rise to claiming the most expensive work by an African-born artist was achieved in tandem with another milestone. Her work is also the highest for a Black female artist living or dead. The new $9.3 million record bests her own previous high mark, $5.6 million (HKD 44,209,000) reached in 2019 when “Black Ground (Deep Light)” (2006) sold at Sotheby’s, another record-setting sale in Hong Kong.

In 2010, Mehretu’s work first eclipsed $1 million at auction and soon reached $2 million in the same year, both times at Sotheby’s New York. By 2013, a large painting titled “Rising Down” (2008) hit $3 million at a Sotheby’s auction held in Doha, Qatar.

“Total auction sales remained well under $10 million annually until 2013 (for all Black women artists!), when work by Julie Mehretu started to sell for significant sums at auction. That year, her work alone accounted for 74.8 percent of all auction sales of work by Black American female artists. Her share peaked in 2016, when it amounted to just under 80 percent,” according to Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns, who published findings from their Burns Halperin Report 2022 via Artnet News

Following Mehretu, works by a small group of Black women artists have sold for $2 million to nearly $5 million at auction, including Akunyili-Crosby, Christina Quarles, Amy Sherald, Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Simon Leigh, and Jennifer Packer. Results for these artists, at this price level, have only occurred in the past several years.


Installation view of Untitled (2001), a diptych painting by Julie Mehretu that sold for $9.3 million, setting a new auction record for an African-born artist. | Courtesy Sotheby’s


Mehretu has dominated the market with large, tour-de-force paintings defined by dynamic, gestural mark making that appears to be purely abstract in form. The work, however, is imbued with representational elements—containing terrain maps and architectural drawings; referencing cityscapes, transportation, and mobility; and speaking to social, cultural, and political history and contemporary experience. Exercises in the graphic possibilities of symbolism and spacial relationships, the layered compositions are a powerful confluence of shape, line, and color.

One year after Mehretu painted Untitled (1970), the record-setting lot was featured at the 8th Baltic Triennial of International Art at Centre of Attraction in Lithuania. More than a dozen years later, the work was included in the exhibition “Julie Mehretu: Paintings and Works on Paper” (April 10-May 16, 2015) at John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. That same year, the painting came to auction at Christie’s New York where it sold for $2,285,000.

Untitled was consigned at Sotheby’s by the Christie’s buyer. The lot was offered with an estimate that exceeded Mehretu’s existing high mark and sold for the record-setting price of $9.3 million, more than four times the Christie’s result.

The outcome reflects Mehretu’s longstanding, critically recognized practice and steady market interest in the mid-career artist’s output. Hannah O’Leary, head of Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary African Art department said as much to The Art Newspaper. She said: “Her following has never faltered but rather has gone from strength to strength—as [the] result clearly illustrates.“ CT


All results include fees. Estimates do not include fees.


“Julie Mehretu: They departed for their own country another way (a 9x9x9 hauntology)” is currently on view at White Cube Bermondsey in London, from Sept. 15-Nov. 5, 2023

FIND MORE about Julie Mehretu on Instagram


FIND MORE about artist’s resale rights: Resale rules have become the art world norm: what are they and are they enforceable? via Art Newspaper


“Julie Mehretu” was published in 2019 to accompany the artist’s mid-career survey organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Julie Mehretu: Grey Paintings” was published to coincide with “Hoodnyx, Voodoo and Stelae,” the artist’s 2016 exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery and features an essay by artist Glenn Ligon. “Julie Mehretu: Drawings and Monotypes” documents an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, the University of Cambridge gallery. Also consider, “Julie Mehretu – Liminal Squared” and “Julie Mehretu: A Universal History of Everything and Nothing,” among other publications.


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