Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads Hit $4.4 Million at $26.9 Million Phillips London Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Phillips achieves best total since June 2012 with a $4.4 million Ai Weiwei and a $2.5 million Mark Bradford.

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Lot 11, Mark Bradford, Biting the Book (2013).
Image courtesy of Phillips.
Lot 14, Allen Jones Sin-Derella (1969).
Image courtesy of Phillips.
Lot 1, Rashid Johnson, We Real Cool (2008).
Image courtesy of Phillips
Lot 7, Tauba Auerbach, Untitled (Fold) X (2009).
Image courtesy of Phillips.
Lot 8, Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010).
Image courtesy of Phillips.
Lot 6, Alex Israel, Sky Backdrop (2013).
Image courtesy of Phillips.
Lot 13, Andy Warhol, Diamond Dust Shoes (1980).
Image courtesy of Phillips

Phillips is used to coming in at the tail end of these auction series, with a smaller, shorter sale than Sotheby’s or Christie’s, and with a more contemporary, less postwar emphasis. The auctioneer’s problem is to secure good examples by artists at reasonable estimates because, in most cases, the house is second or third port of call for sellers. Now in its plush, central location on London’s Mayfair, with Sotheby’s and the new, large Gagosian gallery-to-be just around the corner, it is also upgrading the staff. With former Christie’s chief executive Ed Dolman at the helm, the latest signing is Matt Carey-Williams, a young man with a veteran’s experience from Sotheby’s, Gagosian, and White Cube, as deputy chairman, Europe and Asia, who was very much part of the action this evening. (See Phillips Appoints Matt Carey-Williams as Deputy Chairman, Europe and Asia.)

Results for Phillips’s part one London sales usually hover around the £15 million mark and this evening’s 30 lot sale was estimated to fetch between £13.5–20.2 million. By the end of the session they had sold all but two lots, and, including one after sale that was made while the auction was in progress, they had taken in £17.7 million ($26.9 million), including buyer’s premium, the best Phillips London Contemporary Art Evening Sale total since June 2012. (Estimates do not include buyer’s premium, whereas sale prices given here do.)

Highest hopes rested on Ai Weiwei’s 12, approximately 28-inches-high gold-plated zodiac heads, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010), which carried the highest estimate of the sale at £2–3 million. The artist’s previous record was $1.2 million for his Map of China sold in Hong Kong in June 2014. Modelled on the ancient Zodiac heads that were originally made for a fountain in the Imperial Palace in Beijing and then looted, Ai Weiwei refers in this work to China’s cultural history, repatriation, and reputation for copying. Gold-plated versions from this edition of eight plus two artist’s proofs are still on a world tour and have recently been shown in Moscow and at Bleinhem Palace in England. Several sets are known to be in private collections. The Phillips edition, number seven from the edition of eight, was provenanced to the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, where it was shown in 2011 and priced originally at $1.8 million, going up incrementally as each sale reduced the number of editions available.

Three telephone bidders vied for the set. One was from Russia and another from the USA, and the latter finally won out at £2.9 million ($4.4 million)—an artist’s record far exceeding the retail price. A second Ai Weiwei of three hand-painted Neolithic pots, one of a large series of such works, was estimated at £100,000–150,000 and sold over the telephone for £182,500 ($277,400). Although the room was quite full, 99 percent of the bidding was done over the telephone.

Phillips also achieved a landmark price for the American artist Mark Bradford, when his very large mixed-media canvas Biting the Book (2013), bought from a show at London’s White Cube that closed only a year ago, attracted multiple telephone bids before selling to a client speaking to Philips’s New York–based president Michael McGinnis, for a record £2.5 million ($3.9 million), double the estimate and four times the gallery retail price for such a work. The fact that Phillips could attract such a major contemporary work for sale—the only one by Bradford in the London auction series—and fetch such a price, spoke volumes about Phillips’s advancing credibility.

The other top-selling American works were all guaranteed by third parties. Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes (1980), had three telephone bidders, and genuine competition before it sold within estimate for £2.3 million ($3.5 million). But Christopher Wool’s blurry enamel on linen Untitled (2003) sold to one bidder on the low estimate, presumably by the guarantor, for £1.4 million ($2.2 million), as did Tauba Auerbach’s folded paper painting, Untitled (Fold) X (2009), selling for £1.2 million ($1.8 million), slightly less than a very similar work made in New York last year.

This begs the question of whether artists whose prices have risen dramatically in the past three years of the post–credit crunch boom and have now plateaued can be sustained at those levels. For example, a very large, decorative painting, Sky Backdrop (2013), by Alex Israel, was bigger than a similar work that fetched record $1 million last year. It was guaranteed by a third party with a £400,000–600,000 estimate, but sold for only £506,500 ($769,880). A painting by Nate Lowman, Trash Landing Marilyn #12 (2011), bought in 2012 for $725,000 will see no gains for the seller after commission is deducted from the within estimate £422,500 ($642,200) it fetched this evening.

Several stars of yesteryear are under scrutiny. A painting by the once much coveted Cecily Brown, which was bought in 2011 for £421,250, was unsold at £380,000.

Making a better showing was Rashid Johnson’s graffiti-style We Real Cool (2008). Perhaps benefitting from his first exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London currently running, where prices range from $90 to $250,000, this was one of the handful of lots selling above estimate, fetching £116,500 ($177,080).

Of the works that had been at auction recently, the best return was achieved by Sin-Derella, a slinky, suggestive 1969 painting by British Pop artist Allen Jones. Jones attracted market attention in 2012 when his fetishistic furniture from the ’60s from the Gunter Sachs collection was selling for close to £1 million. Recently he has had a retrospective at the Royal Academy in London. This painting, which was bought in 2012 for £229,500, was included in the exhibition and owned, according to the catalogue, by London dealer Ivor Braka. At Phillips, it was guaranteed and estimated at £300,000–500,000, selling for £386,500 ($587,480).

As at Christie’s the night before, approximately half of the lots had sold on or below the low estimate. But that did not diminish the very major hurdle that Phillips jumped this evening in London with two top-selling lots. After the sale, Ed Dolman said that the new building, with its large gallery overlooking Berkeley Square, was a major factor in attracting big and important contemporary works, like the eight-and-a-half-by-12-foot Mark Bradford painting for sale. (See Phillips Opens Massive New Flagship in London.)

Let’s see if the swank new headquarters can continue to do so.

UPDATE: Due to a mistake in Phillips’ sales catalogue, the guarantees in this article were originally described as house guarantees when in fact, they were third-party guarantees. This has now been corrected. 


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