De Kooning and KAWS Lend Multi-Generational Firepower to Phillips’s Solid $100 Million Modern and Contemporary Sale

The street artist KAWS fared especially well, as two paintings by the neo-Pop artist soared past their estimates.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XVI (1976). Courtesy of Phillips.

“Do I think my work should sell for this much? No,” the artist known as KAWS told the New York Times this week.

Bidders at Phillips New York saw things differently on Wednesday evening, as they slugged it out over the artist’s painting The Walk Home (2012), which features SpongeBob SquarePants, in the night’s most electric contest. Against a high estimate of $800,000, the seven-foot-wide canvas hammered to Phillips deputy chairman Robert Manley for a stunning $5 million, or nearly $6 million with the house’s fees. Asian buyers, bidding via the house’s Jonathan Crockett and Kevie Yang, were especially active in hunting this lot and in the evening overall.

KAWS, <i>THE WALK HOME</I> (2012). Courtesy of Phillips.

KAWS, THE WALK HOME (2012). Courtesy of Phillips.

The hammer total for the sale, which also included works by Willem de Kooning, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Mark Bradford, was $85.3 million, near the low end of the $75.9 million to $107.8 million presale estimate. All but one of the 43 lots offered found buyers. With the house’s fees, the sale brought in $99.9 million. (Unless otherwise specified, final prices include premiums; presale estimates do not.)

The top seller of the evening was a Willem de Kooning abstraction, Untitled XVI (1976), which hammered at $8.8 million, at the low end of the estimate, or $10.3 million with fees. Phillips, which has been working to expand into Modern art but is best known for offering fresh contemporary work, also set several records for living artists, including Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita (whose black-and-white 2015 painting Just Like Family sold for $1 million against a high estimate of $350,000) and Swiss artist Nicolas Party (whose candy-colored landscape fetched $608,000, quadruple the high estimate).

For around two hours, Phillips also held the auction record for a work by painter Dana Schutz, whose 2009 dinner-table scene fetched $980,000, nearly quadruple its low estimate. That figure was eclipsed later in the evening by Sotheby’s, which sold a painting by the artist for $2.4 million. 

Roy Lichtenstein, Horse and Rider (1976). Courtesy of Phillips.

Roy Lichtenstein, Horse and Rider (1976). Courtesy of Phillips.

A closely watched segment of the Phillips sale was the 15 works from the collection of Minneapolis entrepreneur Miles Fiterman and his wife Shirley. The trove of art by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Alexander Calder, and others is one of the most valuable consignments Phillips has secured in its history. The rest of the 95-work collection will be sold over the course of the year; it carries a financial guarantee and is certain to sell.

All told, the 15 works from the Fiterman collection performed adequately, but may not have offered a large upside to the guarantor: three works sold above estimate, three below, and the rest within expectations. The collection’s top lot of the evening was Lichtenstein’s painting Horse and Rider (1976), selling for just shy of its $6 million low estimate with fees. (Its final price was $5.95 million—precisely the same as the top KAWS.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait (1983). Courtesy of Phillips.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait (1983). Courtesy of Phillips.

Thursday night’s event was the rare sale in which two of the top three estimated lots were by African American artists (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Bradford), while one of the top 10 items was a work by a woman. A 1967 untitled work by Eva Hesse sold for just under $4 million, exceeding its $3.5 million high estimate and becoming her second-priciest work at auction. 

“Museums are looking at whether they have enough women and minorities in their collections, and it’s driving great works to auction,” said Sotheby’s veteran Molly Ott Ambler, now with New York art consultancy Gurr Johns International. 

Though they made good prices, many of the biggest-ticket items brought hardly any bids. After less than a minute, art dealer Judith Hess placed the winning bid, on behalf of a client, on Basquiat’s 1983 Self-Portrait; the price was $9.5 million, just above its low estimate of $9 million. The work led a number of pieces from late Los Angeles collector Matt Dike, a former assistant to mega-dealer Larry Gagosian and friend of Basquiat’s.

Draining some drama from the room (apart from the KAWS mania) was the fact that much of the sale was a foregone conclusion. Some 28 of the 43 lots were guaranteed to sell by either the house or a third party. The total guaranteed was in excess of $63 million, nearly the low estimate for the sale overall.

One of the works that sold to its guarantor was Bradford’s Helter Skelter II (2007), created for an exhibition at New York’s New Museum. It hammered at $7.7 million, just shy of its low estimate, or $8.5 million with fees. At 36 feet wide and 12 feet high, the abstract mixed-media collage on canvas is the companion piece to Helter Skelter I, which tennis great John McEnroe sold at Phillips last year for $12 million, a record for the artist at auction. (The buyer for that work was the Broad in Los Angeles.) 

Mark Bradford, Helter Skelter II (2007). Courtesy of Phillips.

Mark Bradford, Helter Skelter II (2007). Courtesy of Phillips.

“It’s obviously a masterpiece,” Phillips CEO Edward Dolman told artnet News after the sale, adding that “quite often after a breakout price, there is a bit of settling in the market, as you saw tonight.”

The solid sale came fresh off the news of a major hire. Phillips recently announced it nabbed three-decade Sotheby’s veteran David Norman as chairman of the Americas. Since Dolman assumed his post in 2014, according to the house, sales have increased by 129 percent, and 2018 was its most successful year to date.

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