Phillips’s Spring Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London Generated a Solid £24.8 Million, Up Nearly a Fifth From Last Year

The house sold 91 percent by lot.

Jean Dubuffet, La féconde journée (1976). Image courtesy Phillips.
Jean Dubuffet, La féconde journée (1976). Image courtesy Phillips.

Phillips—the last of the Big Three to conduct a marquee spring evening sale in London—had a solid showing on Thursday evening, achieving £24.8 million across 33 lots. All told, the April 15 sale exceeded its pre-sale upper estimate of £23.5 million ($32.4 million), selling a respectable 94 percent by value and 91 percent by lot.

Phillips’s chief executive Ed Dolman said at a post-sale press huddle that the house was “very pleased” with the result, adding that he was struck by the depth of the bidding. In this new era of the livestreamed auction, the proceedings were conducted by auctioneer Henry Highley from the house’s London sale room, with additional bids being fielded from phone banks in New York and Hong Kong as well as online.

The two-and-a-half-hour sale stuck to the 20th century and contemporary category, a refreshing break from the other houses’ four to five-hour cross-category marathons. This choice also explains the larger-than-usual discrepancy in their results (Sotheby’s raked in $132.6 million and Christie’s, $270 million at their cross-category bonanzas).

The top lot of the night was Jean Dubuffet’s La féconde journée (1976), which soared past its pre-sale upper estimate of £2 million to hammer at £3.6 million (around £4.4 million, or $6.1 million, with fees) to a bidder on the phone with Hugues Joffre in London. The work was acquired by the consignor, a U.S.-based collector, from the Paris gallery Cazeau-Béraudière, and had previously passed through the collections of Museum of Modern Art trustee Joel Ehrenkranz, Baltimore collector Robert Meyerhoff, and the New York collectors Muriel and Howard Weingrow.

It was the first time the monumental collage work has come to auction, and the house’s global chairwoman Cheyenne Westphal said the interest reflected the relevance Dubuffet still has on leading contemporary artists, including Rashid Johnson. Dubuffet is also the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Barbican. Still, the result is a far cry from the artist’s current auction record, some $24.8 million achieved for an early 1960s work at Christie’s in 2015, according to the Artnet Price Database.

Banksy, Gas Mask Boy (2009). Image courtesy Phillips.

Banksy, Gas Mask Boy (2009). Image courtesy Phillips.

Two lots were withdrawn ahead of the sale: a painting by Emily Mae Smith (whose work performed well at Phillips last October) and a work by Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka estimated at around £1.5 million ($2 million).

Of the lots that remained on the block, three failed to find buyers: a Paula Rego pastel, a John Currin oil painting, and a bronze sculpture by François-Xavier Lalanne. (Final sales results include buyer’s premium; unless otherwise stated, pre-sale estimates do not.)

As has become the norm, the performance was stage-managed to a degree, with five lots carrying pre-sale guarantees, including a bronze Giacometti sculpture that sold for £1.8 million ($2.5 million), an Ed Ruscha work on paper, and a silkscreen Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. 

Notably, third party guarantor(s) also stepped up to back two Banksys shortly ahead of the opening hammer, and the upper estimate on the street artist’s Gas Mask Boy was subsequently bumped up by £500,000. (The Banksy hammered on its new low estimate at £1.8 million, or $2.5 million. The other Banksy, a stenciled flower bomber on cardboard, hammered just below estimate at £350,000.)

Mark Rothko, <i>Untitled (Black Blue Painting)</i> (1968). Image courtesy Phillips.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) (1968). Image courtesy Phillips.

It was a good afternoon for American abstraction as the second and third top lots of the night were a Frank Stella painting of concentric squares and Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black Blue Painting). They hammered at £2.35 million each (buoyed to £2.8 million, or $3.9 million, with fees) to bids fielded by specialist Kate Bryan in London and Charlotte Raybaud, the house’s evening sale head in Hong Kong, respectively.

The result for the Rothko, which hammered under its pre-sale low estimate of £2.5 million, might have been a disappointment to the seller, a West Coast collector who acquired the work at Phillips in New York in late 2018 for $4.2 million (around £3 million). The same consignor also parted ways with Carmen Herrera’s 2015 Aquila Verde, which hammered within estimate at £580,000 ($799,910).

Younger artists—a sweet spot for Phillips and a strong segment of the contemporary art market of late—performed solidly. The auction debut of the British-Liberian painter and rising star Lina Iris Viktor saw bidders competing from New York, London, and Hong Kong for around five minutes. The work eventually landed with a bidder on the phone with Amanda Lo Iacono in New York, netting £195,000 ($268,935), roughly six times its low estimate. A 2017 work by the late painter Matthew Wong, Two Women, continued his auction hot streak, selling for £954,000 ($1.3 million), more than double its high estimate.

A portrait by Jordan Casteel completed in 2015, Quinn, also performed solidly, selling for £233,000 (around $320,000) to a bidder on the phone with Scott Nussbaum in New York. It represented a tidy 6,300 percent return for the consignor, who acquired the work from Sargent’s Daughters, a gallery in New York, according to the provenance published by Phillips. At the time, the price was less than $5,000, said Allegra LaViola, the owner of the gallery.

Overall, Dolman said, the sale this performed “significantly better” than last year, with the total up 17 percent from the equivalent pre-lockdown event in February 2020. It’s a positive sign that aligns with broader market trends; the value of public sales at the Three Big houses rose 50 percent globally in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to ArtTactic

Phillips continues its spring sale season tomorrow with the 20th century and contemporary day sale and the sale of the Enea Righi Collection.


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