LONDON—Before a standing-room crowd at Christie's here last month, the bidding opened on an abstract painting filled with black scratching, "Burrito" scrawled across the top in bright yellow. The auctioneer announced that there were already 17 telephone and absentee buyers vying for the canvas, made three years ago by Oscar Murillo, who just turned 28.
While Mr. Murillo is little known outside clubby contemporary art circles, and he has his share of skeptics, his fans have called him "the 21st-century Basquiat." That night, after fierce competition, "Untitled (burrito)" sold for $322,870, more than six times its high $49,000 estimate. Only two years ago, Mr. Murillo, who was born in Colombia, was waking up at 5 a.m. to clean office buildings to cover his expenses at the Royal College of Art in London. Now, he is represented by David Zwirner, one of the world's most prestigious galleries, and when a choice canvas comes up at auction or through private sale, it can fetch more than $400,000.
The story of how a young artist like Mr. Murillo soared from struggling student to art star—courted by blue-chip dealers, inundated by curators requesting a work for a museum exhibition or biennial—reflects the way investing in contemporary art has become a gamble, like stocks and real estate. Collecting works by rising artists like Lucien Smith, Jacob Kassay, Sterling Ruby or Mr. Murillo is a competitive sport among a growing number of collectors betting on future stars.
On a recent stop in New York, Mr. Murillo sat in an office in one of David Zwirner's Chelsea galleries, talking over plans for his first show there, an ambitious combination of performance and installation opening on April 24. Wearing scruffy jeans, a T-shirt and a black baseball cap, this usually laid-back artist bristled when asked what it was like to be so in demand, knowing how fickle the art world is. "I don't like to think about it," he replied, staring soberly at a cup of tea.
For Mr. Murillo, celebrity cuts both ways. He reluctantly conceded that the attention is flattering and something that hundreds of young artists could only dream of. But he knows that being thrust in the spotlight at such a young age is risky.
"This is a market hungry for the players of the future," Allan Schwartzman, a Manhattan art adviser, said. "But almost any artist who gets that much attention so early on in his career is destined for failure. The glare is simply too bright for them to evolve."