Phillips’s Encouraging $35 Million Contemporary Art Evening Sale Is Not Without Its Bumps

Testing the market for emerging artists.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958) Estimate £5,000,000 - 7,000,000 Photo: courtesy Phillips

Piero Manzoni, Achrome (1958)
Photo: Courtesy of Phillips

Phillips opened the battle for London’s February series of contemporary art sales last night (February 9), touting a $37.4/51.5 million (£25.9/37.5 million) presale estimate that had been revised down from recent estimates after three lots were withdrawn. However, it was still the highest estimate that Phillips has ever quoted for a London evening sale auction.

The result was an encouraging, but modest, $35.1 million (£24.6 million) sale, including the buyers’ premium. Of 43 lots on offer, just nine were unsold. However, 16 of the works that were sold fell below their presale estimate.

Appropriate to the company’s ambitions to break into the dominant duopoly of art auctioneers, it also had one of the largest number of guarantees of the week—eleven works with a combined low estimate of $17 million (£12 million)—or 43 percent of the total low estimate.


Mimmo Rotella Untitled (1964)
Image: Courtesy of Phillips

Reflecting Phillips’s ambitions, several of the works carried the most lofty estimates for artists this week—sometimes the highest ever.

A pleated Manzoni canvas that sold for $700,000 (£465,500) in 2000, now carried a $7.2/10 million estimate. Closely watched by Luigi Mazzoleni, who has a handful of pleated Manzonis in his current exhibition in London, and by Sotheby’s, which offers a slightly smaller example at half the estimate tomorrow, it had a third party guarantee and sold for $8.6 million (£5.6 million), possibly to the guarantor.

Mazzoleni’s sales consultant, Roberto Annicchiarico, said the price for the Manzoni was right, but there were bargains for an all-white slashed canvas by Lucio Fontana that was sold within estimate for $2 million (£1.4 million), and for a guaranteed 1959 wood collage by Albert Burri, which sold below estimate for $2.9 million (£2 million).

Estimate £2,500,000 - 3,500,000

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 14 Avril (1962)
Photo: courtesy Phillips

Bearing the unmistakable stamp of Hugues Joffre’s recent hiring by Phillips, there was a strong selection of postwar European art. There were high hopes for Pierre Soulages’s five-foot high, blue and black abstract, Peinture (1962) which had belonged to the New York dealer Sam Kootz, and was bought in one of Joffre’s sales when he was at Sotheby’s in 1990 for about $340,000 (£192,500).

Soulages is now France’s most expensive living painter with an auction record of $6.2 million (£4.3 million). Phillips’s painting carried the highest ever estimate yet for a Soulages at $3.6/5 million, but much to Joffre’s surprise, it didn’t sell.

The majority of guarantees were third party, many from a family collection believed to be from Italy. One of them, a Marino Marini bronze of a horse and rider was withdrawn, amid comments from observers that it had gotten caught up in Italian export red tape.

Among the other works from this collection was a sizeable abstract painting, Pittura (Verde) (1960), by Japanese Informel artist Toshimitsu Imai, which carried the highest estimate yet for him at $217,000—360,000, but which sold for a disappointing $124,900 (£86,500).

Toshimitsu Imai, Pittura (Verde), (1960), Estimate £150,000 - 200,000 Photo: courtesy Phillips

Toshimitsu Imai, Pittura (Verde), (1960).
Image: Courtesy of Phillips

Still, there were some very convincing moments in the sale. One of the guaranteed lots, a 1956 oil and collage of a sunbather by Jean Dubuffet, soared over estimate to sell for $1.7 million (£1.2 million). Shortly afterwards, an exceptionally large 1964 torn poster “decollage” by Mimmo Rotella, with images of Hollywood stars James Dean and Sophia Loren incorporated, sold for a record $1.6 million (£1.1 million).

Jean Dubuffet Blain de Soleil (1956) Photo: courtesy Philips

Jean Dubuffet Blain de Soleil (1956)
Photo: Courtesy Phillips

A painting by Jean Fautrier, who has not figured as a buy on the art market for a couple of decades, also sold over estimate for $385,000 (£266,500). Perhaps Phillips has turned a corner here.

The firm also signalled its interest in the future of holding Modern British art sales. Rarely would one see a Graham Sutherland painting in an Impressionist, modern, or contemporary sale, but Phillips offered a work with quite a punchy estimate included within the larger consignment from Italy which had been guaranteed, and selling, albeit on the low estimate for $315,000 (£218,500) to London-based advisors Beaumont Nathan.

L. S. Lowry, Reservoir (1952).Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

L. S. Lowry, Reservoir (1952).
Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

Nor does one ever see a painting by L.S Lowry outside a Modern British art sale. However, tonight there was one of the artist’s lesser-known unpeopled seascapes, the ripple of white waves looking uncannily like the pleated Manzoni, and painted a few years earlier. The painting, Reservoir (1952), had been bought at Sotheby’s in 2011 for $607,000 (£379,200) by the dealer, Daniel Katz, and was now sold by a private collector for $653,000 (£452,500).

Of course Phillips still has its reputation as a cutting-edge auctioneer to maintain, and the sale boasted the usual array of sought-after artists.

The company certainly staked its claim on secondary market works for Moroccan born Latifa Echakhch last Christmas with an estimate and record-busting $200,000 (£134,500) blue ink painting, and this evening, one of her target style tondos, Tambour 88, carried a higher estimate of $75,000—106,000 and sold comfortably for $185,000 (£122,500).


 Carol Bove, Untitled (2013).<br>Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

Carol Bove, Untitled (2013).
Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

There are three works by Zwirner artist, Carol Bove, for sale this week – all at Phillips. Last night one of her eight-foot high, peacock-feathered panels from 2013, was within range of a record with a $173,000–260,000 estimate, but only just scraped by at $185,000 (£128,500).

Three works by KAWS, currently enjoying a British media splash with a big show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park,  are also up for grabs, and all at Phillips. This evening the biggest, an eight-foot-diameter circular cartoon style painting, Nyt (2008), had a punchy $217,000–360,000 estimate and sold to a New York collector in the room for $280,750 (£194,500).

Cory Arcangel, Photoshop CS: 110 by 72 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient "Spectrum", mousedown y=23900 x=11650, mouse up y=32650 x=11650 (2009).Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

Cory Arcangel, Photoshop CS: 110 by 72 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum”, mousedown y=23900 x=11650, mouse up y=32650 x=11650 (2009).
Photo: Courtesy Phillips.

Phillips also had the higher estimate of two works by Cory Arcangel on the block this week. A dazzling, nine-foot high photoshop C print from 2009 was estimated as high as any other of his works at $173,000–260,000 but sold just below estimate for $202,800 (£140,500).

After the sale, and in the light of the Impressionist and modern art sales last week, Phillips chairman, Ed Dolman acknowledged that “the market has changed, but it doesn’t feel like a crash.”

Other buyers in the room included Ed Tang, formerly of Christie’s, who joined the advisory firm, Art Agency Partners last year, which is now part of Sotheby’s. Tang bought Jim Hodges’s shimmering brass spider’s web, Angels Voices, 1993, on a mid-estimate $592,500 (£410,500); while Michaela de Pury, another advisor attached to an auctioneer, bought George Condo’s Woman and Man, 2008, that was being sold by a Russian collector, also for a mid-estimate $557,900 (£386,500).

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