Emerging Artists Earn Phillips Its Most Lucrative Auction Ever, Raking in a $137.9 Million Sales Total

Records were set for younger artists, like Shara Hughes and Ewa Juszkiewicz, while the marquee lot by Francis Bacon failed to reach its low estimate.

Phillips' 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 2021. Courtesy Phillips.

Auction week in New York City continues to break records at a rapid clip, with tonight’s  $137.9 million sale at Phillips of 20th Century and Contemporary Art clinching the title of highest net earnings the house has ever achieved. This sum was reached in a manner that seems very specific to Phillips, as some of the top lots of marquee names failed to achieve even their low estimate—or were passed altogether—while works by emerging artists doubled or tripled their high estimates. (Final prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; pre-sale estimates do not.)

One such example was the evening’s very first lot. Forty-year-old painter Shara Hughes broke her previous auction record of $1.2 million, made just last month in London, eking out just ahead of it tonight with the sale of Inside Outside (2018) for $1.5 million.

The sale started with a number of online buyers from Hong Kong bidding on the low end for several emerging artists’ works, including pieces by Hughes, Jadé Fadojutimi, Ewa Juszkiewicz—who also set an auction record tonight for the sale of Girl in Blue (2013) at $731,000, over a $80,000 to $120,000 estimate—and Kwesi Botchway. But a Hong Kong bidder didn’t actually win a piece until Titus Kaphar’s Fade with Time (2013) sold for $817,000, more than doubling its low estimate of $400,000.

Shara Hughes, Inside Out, 2018.

Shara Hughes, Inside Out (2018). Courtesy Phillips.

One more established artist did well, however, despite a potentially troublesome time in the market for his work: Raymond Pettibon achieved an auction record this evening with the sale of his wave painting, No Title (Let him come…) (2011), which was estimated to sell between $1.5 million to $2 million and brought in $3.4 million. Pettibon’s previous record is also a wave painting, though one much darker in hue, No Title (Deeper above all…) (2011), which sold for $2.7 million at Sotheby’s this May.

And while the Phillips sale had an energetic start, it lagged in the middle, with two lots—Willem de Kooning’s Composition (1958) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Fliessend (1931)—being passed on, putting the sell-through rate at about 93 percent. A third passed-over lot, Wallpaper (2014) by Luc Tuymans, found a buyer who paid $1.25 million for it after the auction. And two lots were withdrawn before the sale, Milton Avery’s Brown Bolero (1957) and Barkley L. Hendricks’s FTA (1968).

Even the marquee lot, Francis Bacon’s Pope with Owls (ca. 1958), was not spared during the mid-sale slog, selling for $33 million, below its low estimate of $35 million. “I don’t know why it didn’t make more money. It’s the one I would have picked,” Ed Dolman, Phillips’ executive chairman, told Artnet News after the sale, “but it sort of looks like an Old Master now.” 

Francis Bacon, Pope with Owls 1958

Francis Bacon, Pope with Owls, 1958. Courtesy Phillips.

During the post-sale press conference, Jean-Paul Engelen, the house’s deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, echoed that remark, lamenting that “there was no fight over it, and that was disappointing.” Robert Manley, who shares the same title, rebuked this sentiment however, saying: “I don’t think tastes have changed, I think that tastes have expanded… Everyone wants to write an obituary for Modernist and Impressionist art.” 

Those expanded tastes might also comes from an expanded collector base, since there were bidders from more than 40 countries in tonight’s sale, and a 309 percent increase in online bidding enrollment since the last in-person auction Phillips held, in 2019. 

The action picked up again when Hong Kong rejoined the sale for market star Matthew Wong’s Time After Time (2018), which made $1.5 million on an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Soon after this, a bidding war erupted between buyers in New York and Hong Kong for Avery Singer’s European Ego Ideal (2014). The artist just mounted an acclaimed solo show with Hauser & Wirth in New York, and this figurative painting in black-and-white mirrored the look of the work in that exhibition. The piece wound up selling for $4 million, over a $1.5 million to $2.5 million estimate. 

Then the sale of Mark Tansey’s nostalgic, melancholic Garden (2006) dropped jaws at $2.9 million, over a $700,000 to $1 million estimate, and Emily Mae Smith’s Feast and Famine (2018) more than quadrupled its high estimate, selling for $1.4 million.

While the sales seemed to happen almost entirely via online bidding overseas, the Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell were present—although they peeled off after the second Basquiat of the night was sold. And former Sotheby’s staffer turned art advisor Gabriela Palmieri was there to purchase Cecily Brown’s gestural untitled piece from 2007 for $6.1 million, over its $3.5 million to 4.5 million estimate, as well as another untitled work by Cy Twombly for $786,000. It was a “diverse sale that touched on opportunities for both connoisseurs and investors,” she told Artnet News.

Ewa Juszkiewicz's Girl in Blue 2013

Ewa Juszkiewicz, Girl in Blue, 2013. Courtesy Phillips.

The end of the sale solidified the evening’s impressive numbers for artists on the more contemporary end of the spectrum. David Hammons’s 1988 untitled sculpture featuring pots, pans, and gold chains raked in $3.7 million on an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million. And Nicholas Party, another recent market star, saw the sale of Houses (2015) obliterate its estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, netting a total of $1.7 million.

To finish the night off, the room erupted into applause as Reggie Burrows Hodges’s On The Verge: Green (2020) collected a cool $567,000 over its estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. As well as bringing Phillips a historic net total, sales likes these are what makes the house a veritable scouting ground of emerging artists to watch.

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