Phillips Defies Brexit Gloom as Records Tumble in Its $32 Million Contemporary Art Sale in London

The sale set new records for Simone Leigh, Raoul De Keyser, Alex Katz, and others.

Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella I (1972). Courtesy of Phillips.

While yesterday’s single-owner sale of predominantly British art at Christie’s felt fairly cozy, Phillips’s sale this evening was the first of the week to engage with more risky, international contemporary art—and it totaled a healthy £25.8 million ($31.8 million).

And whereas both Sotheby’s and Christie’s later this week have posted pre-sale estimates lower than last year, Phillips’s £17.1 to £24.5 million ($21 milion to $30.1 million) estimate was fractionally up, though the house did have seven more lots. Phillips also had the highest level of pre-sale guarantees, which would have helped consignment levels. Over 60 percent of the value of its sale (or 20 out of the 43 lots) had been guaranteed, all by third parties so as to not expose the company to financial risk.

Top of the estimate list was American superstar Mark Bradford, for whom Phillips had set a record £8.7 million ($12 million) in 2018 when it sold his mural-sized Helter Skelter (2007) for tennis ace John McEnroe. That painting is now in the Broad Museum’s collection.

Hauser & Wirth is currently showing Bradford’s new work in London and, within hours of the opening of Frieze, had sold A Molded Pool of Stories (2019) for $3.4 million, and another at their gallery reportedly for $10 million. The Phillips work, Value 35 (2010), typically collaged like a disfigured billboard poster, was smaller and guaranteed with a £1.5 million to £2 million estimate ($1.8 million to $2.5 million). Coming from a Los Angeles collection (it was interesting how many works had been shipped over from America in spite of the uncertain situation in Britain), it was subject to a bid—or was it just a wave from the doorway?—at £1.65 million ($2.1 million), at which point the bidder/waiver vanished into thin air, leaving Phillips staff scurrying from the saleroom but unable to retrieve the bid. Finally it was knocked down satisfactorily enough to a genuine phone bidder for £1.9 million ($2.4 million).

But there was no shortage of genuine bids in the salesroom from the packed crowd, in town for the art fairs and auctions.

The sole British artist in the top estimate group was Peter Doig protégé Hurvin Anderson, whose Beaver Lake from 1998, shown at his graduation show from the Royal College of Art (probably somewhere near £10,000 then), carried the highest-ever estimate for the artist at £1.5 million to £2 million. Supported by a third party guarantee, it didn’t need one as it rose to £2.2 million—not far off the record.

The only other £1 million (plus estimate) was for Thomas Schutte’s Maschine (1993), a motorized whirligig of grotesque swathed figures that Phillips had sold in 2015 for $1.8 million. This time around it failed to recoup costs, selling on its low estimate for £1.2 million ($1.5 million).

Installation view of Phillips's London Auction House. Courtesy of Phillips.

Installation view of Phillips’s London Auction House. Courtesy of Phillips.

But the top price of the sale came for Alex Katz’s fetching portrait of his wife, Ada, Blue Umbrella 1 (1972). Never at auction before, its bigger pendent, Blue Umbrella No 2 of the same date, was sold by Charles Saatchi in New York in 2001 for a then record $660,000. Katz prices have crept up to $1.2 million in May this year, but Blue Umbrella 1 had Katz’s highest estimate yet, at £800,000 to £1.2 million ($900,000 to $1.5 million) and after bidding from several international telephones, went for a new record £3.4 million ($4.2 million) to a phone manned by Phillips’s client advisory director, Philae Knight.

Another old timer enjoying a market boost, or rather a comeback, is 1960s Light and Space artist Mary Corse. Recently aligned with Pace Gallery and shown by it in Hong Kong, Corse’s eight-square-foot Untitled (White Inner Band, Bevelled Edge) (2008), composed of paint and glass microspheres was a relatively recent example of her minimalist journey into white light paintings and carried her highest estimate yet of £150,000 to £250,000 ($185,000 to $310,000) following the triple estimate $312,500 paid for a 1988 painting in Los Angeles last year. But unfortunately it was withdrawn from the sale because of condition issues, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer for that record to break.

Several lots, apart from these, were carrying the highest yet estimates for the artists, demonstrating some pre-sale optimism by owners and auctioneers. For a market supposedly preparing for a downturn, it was remarkable how many there were.

Also carrying a record estimate was Raoul De Keyser, who died in 2012. Another Zwirner artist, the gallery had just sold three of his works in a special online Frieze exhibition priced between $45,000 and $280,000. At Frieze Masters, Zwirner has priced de Keyser’s work at up to $400,000–far above his $162,500 auction record. At Phillips this evening his de Stijl style painting, Kabinet (1989), was estimated at £100,000 to £150,000 ($123,000 to $185,0000) with a new record in mind, and duly performed, selling to Belgian collector Mark Vanmoerkerke in the room for £162,500 ($199,940). A good result for the seller, a good result for the buyer, and a good example of an auction room interacting with the market immediately surrounding it.

Simone Leigh, Shower Cap (2013). Courtesy of Phillips.

Simone Leigh, Shower Cap (2013). Courtesy of Phillips.

Not surprisingly, artists relatively fresh to the auction market, with whom Phillips kicked off its sale, were also looking at records. American artist Simone Leigh’s previous record, $93,750, was set in an African American sale at Swann this year, so Phillips reckoned it was time to push her boat out with her highest estimate yet of £40,000 to £60,000 ($49,000 to $74,000). Now in her early 50s, Leigh has been in the spotlight since a solo show at the New Museum New York in 2016, the Guggenheim in New York this year, and her inclusion in the current Whitney Biennial. Like much of her work, Shower Cap (2013) references African ceramic traditions and sociopolitical themes, and attracted multiple bidders before selling to a woman in the room for a record £175,000 ($215,320).

A second African American artist to hit the auction block, this one for the first time, was Nathaniel Mary Quinn, whose slightly tortured, almost Bacon-esque portrait collages have been promoted by Pace London in 2014 and currently by Gagosian in LA. For his auction initiation, Phillips had a 2015 work suggesting a multi-dimensional personality wearing a dress and a black-rimmed hat, estimated at £40,000 to 60,000 ($49,000 to $74,000), which proved vastly underestimated as it sold for £212,500 ($261,000). Phillips’s chairman Ed Dolman said he thought such works were being sold only a few years ago privately for under £10,000 each.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Over Yonder (2015). Courtesy of Phillips.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Over Yonder (2015). Courtesy of Phillips.

A third is Derek Fordjour, an artist in his 40s who is currently showing at Josh Lilley gallery in London, and has clearly won admirers. A patterned mixed-media painting of a girl blowing a Green Horn, only his fourth work at auction, tipped his previous $137,000 record, set only last month in New York, to sell for a double estimate £137,500 ($169,000).

Another name to keep an eye on is 37-year-old Russian-born Sanya Kantarovsky, whose surreal narratives were shown at Luhring Augustine this spring and whose prices are creeping up. The £30,000 to £40,000 estimate for the slightly cartoonish Lavender Arrest at Phillips this evening was his highest yet, but it could have been way higher. Sent for sale by a West Coast collector who had acquired it from Marc Foxx in Los Angeles in 2015, it was subject to numerous bids before selling for a record £150,000.

Sanya Kantarovsky, Lavender Arrest (2015). Courtesy of Phillips.

Sanya Kantarovsky, Lavender Arrest (2015). Courtesy of Phillips.

Among those thriving on their recent bullish results at auction was Tschabalala Self, the subject of a solo exhibition now with her London dealer, Pilar Corrias, whose collaged oil and fabric figure of a woman performing a balancing act on a strange, prehistoric animal quadrupled estimates to sell for £275,000 ($338,000).

And, inevitably, there was KAWS. Some 40 examples of KAWS’s works ranging from $600 to $6 million are being auctioned in London and Hong Kong this week, and Skarstedt is launching the artist’s first exhibition in London (prices $450,000 for paintings; $850,000 for sculpture). Where will the bandwagon, which peaked at an extraordinary $14.8 million in Hong Kong this summer, stop? Phillips tonight gave no indication of any let-up, as a painting sold within estimate for £975,000 ($1.2 million), and a nine-foot wooden Mickey Mouse figure with a £800,000 to £1.2 million estimate was underbid by Jose Mugrabi before selling on the high estimate for £1.455 million ($1.8 million).

KAWS, AT THIS TIME (2013). Courtesy of Phillips.

KAWS, AT THIS TIME (2013). Courtesy of Phillips.

So what was happening tonight?

Coming into this sale, people were aware that the total value of the work on sale during Frieze had sunk by nearly 30 percent since last year, but had actual prices? In some cases, they appeared to. An Anish Kapoor, bought in 2013 for £1.14 million ($1.7 million), was back with a £500,000 low estimate and sold for £569,000 ($700,000). And a Joe Bradley painting that cost $708,000 in 2017 was on the block with a £300,000 ($370,000) low estimate and sold for £399,000 ($491,000).

But the overall strength of interest throughout the sale demonstrated that Phillips had hit the right note for Frieze week with not too many high-value lots, which their competitors were finding hard to attract, and tapping into the energy of Frieze, which is essentially about discovering and presenting the potential of younger talent in the mid- to lower-price categories.

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