Phillips’s $17.3 Million Evening Sale Fell Short of Its Low Estimate, but Not Without Some Highs

New records were set for Jesse Mockrin and Kehinde Wiley.

Jesse Mockrin, A Cymbal Crashed and Roaring Horns (2017). Courtesy of Phillips.

Phillips London’s £13.7 million ($17.3 million) 20th century and contemporary art sale on March 7 may have fallen short of its presale estimate and last year’s equivalent sale total, but it’s worth remembering that Phillips had the most improved bottom line of the big three auction houses in 2023, year on year. In this sale, there were enough positive results for some artists, largely in the contemporary sector, to extract at least some optimism for 2024. (All prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted.)

The first lot, Malga, The Place in Which we Gather (2022), was the first work by the contemporary Saudi Arabian artist Alia Ahmad to appear at auction. While Phillips normally hunts down successful new artists on the primary market to propel their sales, in this case the work was brought to them. They knew little about the artist apart from a show that had just opened at White Cube in Paris. The artist is also currently included in “More than Meets the Eye,” a showcase exhibition of modern and contemporary Saudi Arabian art in the Alula Art Festival, indicating official approval back home. A trade source said before the sale to “expect fireworks” as the Paris show had sold out, and there was a waiting list with prices exceeding Phillips’s estimate of £20,000 to £30,000.

Well, they were right. As the bidding opened, eager buyers on the phone and online in New York, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and China entered the fray, raising the price quickly from £20,000 to £75,000 from China before the lot hammered at £80,000 ($101,600)—four times its low estimate. The winning bid was placed by the auction house’s Paris-based specialist, Thibault Stockmann.

Alia Ahmad, Malga—The Place In Which We Gather (2022). Courtesy of Phillips.

According to White Cube’s website, the artist, who is in her twenties, weaves stories based on desert Bedouin culture in large sinewy semi-abstracted paintings. After White Cube in Paris, the artist is scheduled to make her London debut in in May with Albion Jeune, a gallery which has opened under the direction of Lucca Hue-Williams, whose father Michael Hue-Wiliams runs the Albion Barn gallery in Oxfordshire and has long cultivated influential contacts in China and the Middle East. Lucca, who studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, has worked for UCCA in Beijing, where she was a project coordinator for the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which could give her common ground with the artist.

More strong bids came for a highly colored cave-like painting from 2020 by the Brazilian artist Marina Perez Simão, which received bids from Florida, UAE, and Texas before selling for double the low estimate at £152,400 ($194,4020). Simão’s work only started appearing at auction in November 2023. Before that, work at her galleries, Mendes Wood and Pace, was priced between $30,000 and $100,000, until last November when a large-scale untitled painting quadrupled its estimate and sold for a record $422,000 at Sotheby’s New York. The Phillips sale would seem to confirm the heat is still on for Simão.

An estimate-doubling price was also paid for Mediterraneo (2008), a simmering landscape by Salvo, whose prices have been leapfrogging estimates as of late. In this case, the actual price increase was measurable as the painting had been bought in Genoa less than four years earlier for €47,120 ($51,560) and sold at Phillips for £368,600 ($473,385). With this rate of return, it’s no wonder Salvo sales are multiplying—Artnet’s Price Database has recorded 140 already this year.

Jordan Wolfson was represented by Sadie Coles’ HQ gallery until David Zwirner and then Gagosian joined the party last year. Over the last decade, he has become well known for his often controversial animatronic, humanoid sculptures that explore the big issues of sexism, race, and violence—the most ambitious, Body Sculpture (2023), cost the National Gallery of Australia $5 million. But it is mostly his two-dimensional works—untitled images on canvas and laid on aluminum—that come to auction, though not that often, and only occasionally making multiple estimate prices. One inkjet on canvas fetched a double estimate $260,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong in 2021. The work that just surfaced at Phillips London, a 2018 collage of images of New York skyscrapers interlaced with repeated images of John F. Kennedy Jr., came close, selling for £196,850 ($251,181), a sum that doubled its presale estimate.

A Cymbal Crashed with Roaring Horns (2017) is an Old Masterly diptych by Jesse Mockrin that references the story of Susannah and the Elders, simultaneously reminding us of Artemesia Gentileschi and John Currin. Represented by Night Gallery in Los Angeles, Mockrin clearly has a following, with her work selling previously at auction for as much as $113,400. This work had the highest estimate yet for a work by the artist at £60,000 to £80,000, but it still attracted competing bids on the phone, online from Florida and New Jersey, and in the room, the latter bidder winning the day with a record-setting £120,650 ($153,949).

Andy Warhol, Portrait of Princess Diana, 1982

Andy Warhol, Portrait of Princess Diana (1982). Courtesy of Phillips.

The odd one out in this list, because of its date of execution, was a portrait of Princess Diana in a blue dress made by Andy Warhol in 1982, just after her wedding to Prince Charles. It was last sold at auction in 1998 at Christie’s for £105,000 and was now estimated at £1.2 million to £1.8 million. The painting was almost exactly similar to one owned by the best-selling author, Lord Jeffrey Archer, except the dress in his version is green. Archer famously included it in an exhibition of Warhols he owned saying “this one should be worth £5 million.”

The version at Phillips didn’t quite reach that, but it did reach an above-estimate £2.4 million ($3.1 million), before the winning bidder, a young lady, trembling at the excitement of bidding for such a double icon, hot-footed it out of the exit. It marked the highest price achieved for a Princess Diana work by the artist and was the top lot of the sale. The Warhol market has been treading water now for some time, but there was nothing static about the action over this example.

In New York in 2020, Phillips set a record for Kehinde Wiley with his portrait of Mickalene Thomas, which sold for $378,000. So it was not surprising to see his Christian Martyr Tarcisius (2008) placed in this Phillips sale. Measuring seven by 15 feet, it was the largest work by the artist to come to auction. The painting was acquired from Jeffrey Deitch’s “Down” exhibition in 2008, in which the artist positioned Black men in languid, saintly poses with reference to Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.” This was just when Wiley was beginning to make an impact on the market, hitting six figures at auction for the first time. Another example from the series was acquired by Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. The painting also carried the highest estimate yet for the artist at £200,000 to £300,000, and was backed by a guarantee. In the same collection since 2008, it attracted competing telephone phone bids, which took the price to a record £660,400 ($842,670).

Finally, the last lot, Japanese artist Atsushi Kaga’s  Nature Come back while we are Gherkins, 2020 (saw bidding online from Taiwan), before selling to an Asian phone bidder for more than triple the low estimate at £165,100 ($209,600). While several works have sold for more in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, this was the highest price achieved for the artist in a Western auction.

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