Led by Kippenberger, Phillips’s London Auction Fetches $45.2 Million—A White-Glove Sale Leaving Last Year’s in the Dust

The auctioneer's evening sale was up 41 percent from the year before and found a buyer for every lot.

Martin Kippenberger's Ohne Titel (aus der Serie Das Floß der Medusa) (1996). Image courtesy of Phillips.

On Wednesday evening, Phillips carried its highest estimate for a June contemporary art sale in London yet, notching more than £27 million ($35.4 million) for its customarily short 31-lot sale.

The auction house was on a high following its record March sale of £97.8 million ($128 million), which included modern classics by Matisse and Picasso, but there was nothing of that age or gravity in these sales. The policy, said Hugues Joffre, senior advisor to CEO Ed Dolman, was to focus on March in London and New York in November for classic modern art. So this was a pure postwar and contemporary sale, and because of Christie’s weak June sales, it was scheduled to occupy the number two slot in London for the series.

And it did so with some aplomb. Having realized its best day sale ever in London with a mid-estimate of £10.75 million ($14 million), the auctioneer’s evening sale returned £34.4 million or $45.2 million and found a buyer for every lot. (Prices include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.) The total was 41 percent up from last summer’s sale—though Phillips has invested so much in expert staff recently, up was the only way to go.

Phillips also managed not to be the company with the most guarantees for once. Fielding just eight guarantees on lots with a combined low estimate of £10.5 million ($13.8 million)—or 39 percent of the value of the whole sale—the auction house looked positively temperate compared to Sotheby’s. The guaranteed works generally attracted bidding, but it was a close call on two lots guaranteed by Phillips (as opposed to a third party). An erotically charged collage by currently hot George Condo received only one bid to take it to the low estimate of £1.4 million ($1.8 million), and a 1974 shaped canvas by Agostino Bonalumi sold below estimate for £81,250 or about $107,000.

Leading the charge was a self-portrait by Martin Kippenberger from the collection of the extraordinary French collector, Marcel Brient. A late work made in 1996 when the artist knew he was dying of cancer and made with specific reference to Gericault’s figures in the Raft of the Medusa, it had been given an unpublished estimate of £7 million ($9.1 million). It was pursued by New York and London dealer Per Skarstedt before selling on the phone to an Italian-speaking staffer at Phillips for £8.4 million ($11.1 million). Although not a record, it was the highest price at auction for a late work by Kippenberger and the highest price for his work in Europe.

Joan Mitchell's Champs (1990). Image courtesy of Phillip's.

Joan Mitchell’s Champs (1990). Image courtesy of Phillips.

The sale also reflected trends in the art market for certain artists. Joan Mitchell’s recent rise has been well charted, and her work is more usually sold in New York or Paris. But a European collector who bought the slightly enclosed abstract Champs (1990) at Sotheby’s New York in 2013 for $2.2 million went to Phillips London. Not surprisingly, the auction house found a third party guarantor and sold it within estimate for £3.2 million ($4.2 million).

The best returns were for artists who have cracked the Asian market. A 2014 painting by Sean Scully, for instance, didn’t need a guarantee and exceeded estimates selling for £1.2 million ($1.6 million)—a fraction short of a record. There was no visual evidence of bidding from China where he has a following.

Gagosian stable artist Jonas Wood is now a regular feature of contemporary art sales in Hong Kong. Going with the price trend, Phillips gave his large painting, Rosy’s Masks, the highest auction estimate yet of £700,000 to £900,000 and it doubled that, selling for £1.6 million ($2.1 million)—again, a shade off the record. Jonathan Crockett, who heads up Phillips’s sales in Hong Kong, was representing the underbidder. The painting last sold in London two and a half years ago for £293,000 ($384,000). The underbidder then, London dealer Hugh Gibson, must be wondering why he didn’t go a bit higher.

Jonas Wood's Rosy's Masks (2008). Image courtesy of Phillips.

Jonas Wood’s Rosy’s Masks (2008). Image courtesy of Phillips.

Also going up fast is the Brooklyn-based commercial artist Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, whose work is sold as much in Asian auctions as in the West. A typically graphic blue-and-white painting, which had been bought in New York two years ago for $125,000, sold for £321,000 or $422,000.

Fast turnovers or flips were not always beneficial, though. A large Infinity Nets painting by Yayoi Kusama bought at Phillips in New York two years ago for $2 million sold below estimate for a hammer price of £1.4 million ($1.84 million). A sizeable mixed media painting from 1990 by Miguel Barcelo bought at Phillips last year for £413,000 ($540,000) sold for a hammer price of £320,000 ($418,000).

Assuming the seller does not get the buyer’s premium and pays Phillips a seller’s rate, the message is to be careful about what you flip. It is also notable that, in spite of the overall result, 11 of the 31 lots sold below their estimates—bearing the signs of a hard-won victory.

Asian bidding was apparent from the opening lot. The Ingenuity (2011), a painting by UK-born artist of Ghanaian descent Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, was pushed above estimate by Asian bidders before selling to New York art advisor Gaby Palmieri for £156,250 ($205,000). A few lots later, London dealer Ivor Braka was outgunned on a beautifully lit park scene with figures at night by Hurvin Anderson, which sold near the high estimate to an Asian phone bidder for £789,000 or $1,034,815.

Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, Natura (1959–1960. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Natura (1959–1960). Image courtesy of Phillips.

Dealers backing their artists included Lock Kresler of the Levy Gorvy Gallery, which has been keeping prices up this week for Pat Steir, whom they represent. A medium-sized poured abstract of a waterfall from 1989 was bid up by Kresler before selling to a phone bidder for a mid-estimate £381,000 ($500,000).

Although muted, the postwar section had its moments. Dealer Micky Tiroche picked up a 1959 Poliakoff abstract below estimate for £249,000 ($327,000), and a rare bronze Natura sculpture from 1959–60 by Lucio Fontana made the highest price yet for a work from this series selling above estimate for £1.6 million or $2.1 million.

With notable sales for works by Kippenberger, Wood, Scully, and others, the auction maintained the momentum Phillips is creating in the market and sustained what Ed Dolman described as a “resilient and strong” summer season in London.

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