Phillips Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Manages $86.3 Million, Led by 3 Basquiats

A Picasso portrait that was estimated to sell for between $12 million to $18 million was pulled just ahead of the sale.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (ELMAR), 1982. Courtesy of Phillips.

This spring presented the unique opportunity for Phillips to emerge as a victor during what is beginning to look like a sluggish auction season. For one, it is the only house unscathed by technical difficulties, as Christie’s is undergoing a cyberattack during its Rosa de la Cruz and 21st Century sales a few streets over, while collector Alain Servais noted on his X account that user difficulties with the Sotheby’s website led to missing several lots he would have otherwise bid on last night during their “The Now” sale.

“The best of the best is Phillips, which will notify you live five or six lots before,” Servais told Artnet News over the phone. “They’ll email you a reminder, and you can jump on the lot.” 

Tech aside, the foremost reason that the house has a leg-up is that a single Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Untitled (ELMAR) from 1982 bore the highest estimate of any work up for sale this week, across all three houses. The piece had an estimate of $40 million to $60 million and a third-party guarantee.

It ended up selling to the house’s deputy chairman Robert Manley’s bidder on a hammer price of $46.5 million, to a guarantor over the phone, rumored to be Japanese mega-collector Yukaku Maezawa. Though the price is just a hair above the piece’s low estimate, it still reflects a 2,500 percent increase from the $16,000 primary price tag that it was bought for at Annina Nosei Gallery in the early 1980s. 

The hammer fell heavy for this work early in the auction, which otherwise had a pall over it, considering that the second-most-expensive work for sale, Pablo Picasso’s portrait of muse Dora Maar titled Buste de femme au chapeau, had been withdrawn (as was a painting by Milton Avery.) This bumped the low estimate for the total of the sale down from $90 million to $75 million. The high estimate was $110 million, adjusted after the withdrawals.

All in all, the sale netted $86.3 million. Over the course of the night, pieces by Frank Stella, Robert Mangold, Pierre Bonnard, and María Berrío passed. The final total was bolstered by the fact that nearly half of the total lots sold had a third-party estimate, and by the sale of three pieces by the unstoppable Basquiat.

The second piece by the late street artist, Portrait of a Famous Baseball Player (1981), sold for $7.9 million on an estimate of $6.5 million to $8.5 million. It came from the same consignor as the megabucks star lot, Untitled (ELMAR): Francesco Pellizzi, the Italian anthropologist and scholar who passed away suddenly last year at the age of 63. (The house will sell a third Basquiat work from Pellizzi’s collection, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari (1982), at their Hong Kong location later this month.)

A third piece by Basquiat to sell this evening was not from Pellizzi. The work on paper, Untitled (Grain Alcohol) (1983), sold for $2 million, doubling its low estimate of $1 million. 

Helen Frankenthaler's painting Acres.

Helen Frankenthaler, Acres, 1959. Courtesy of Phillips.

While the sale of the two Basquiats accounted for 65 percent of the sale, a handful of other artworks also sold for above their high estimate. Perhaps the liveliest moment in the sale was around an energetic, jewel-toned painting made two years ago by Jadé Fadojutimi, The Pour. That work was fought over by phone bidders in China, Singapore, Turkey, and the United States. At last, it ended up selling for $1.1 million—one of a few works by a living artist to cross the seven-figure threshold of the evening. 

Two other seven-figure works sold by phone through Melyora de Koning, the house’s senior specialist and head of 20th century and contemporary art appraisals. The first was a gestural oil painting by Helen Frankenthaler that well surpassed its low estimate of $1.8 million, selling for a healthy $3.7 million.

The other fell on the more contemporary side: a Rashid Johnson piece from his 2020 series of “anxious red paintings,” many of which have already been snapped up into the collection of museums like the Hirshhorn Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Art Institute of Chicago. This particular example, Anxious Red Painting September 24th, was acquired by the consignor straight from Johnson’s show at Hauser & Wirth in 2020. It sold for $1.39 million to de Koning’s client. 

This is the second of the six marquee auctions in New York this week, and with the big withdrawals and middle-of-the-road results, seems to show how hard to call things are right now. 

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