Phillips’s Revamped London Art Auction Misfired, Notching a Dismal $11.5 Million—With One Work Hammering for Just $127

The reinvented format did not redeem the sale, which closed out London auction week on a down note today.

Auctioneer Henry Highley selling Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale (1966-1967) at Phillips 20th Century to Now London auction on June 30, 2023. Photo Courtesy Phillips.

With the only title with a seven-digit estimate withdrawn at the last minute and works with no reserves hammered at prices as low as £100 ($127), the June London sale week came to an uneasy conclusion with Phillips’ 20th Century to Now auction on Friday. The sale achieved a total of £9 million ($11.5 million) including fees, with 93 lots, or 84 percent of the 111 offered, finding buyers.

The hammer total of £7.1 million ($9 million) against a low presale estimate of £8.6 million ($10.9 million) when adjusted to reflect the lots withdrawn, was undoubtedly a disappointment. Nearly 30 percent of the lots hammered at prices below their low estimates, including nine of the top 10 lots. Only one out of the top 10 went under hammer at a price that met the low estimate.

The dismal showing was the latest confirmation that a market correction is underway. While there were definite bright spots from Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales this past week in London, they did not assuage fears of a sagging market.

Phillips London June 2023

Elizabeth Peyton, Prince Harry, September 1998. Courtesy Phillips.

Phillips held June London sales in 2019 and 2022, skipping the worst years of the pandemic. Both years they held day and evening sales. In 2022, the combined sales total including fees was £23.6 million ($28.7 million), and of the 137 lots offered, 122 lots, or 89 percent, sold. In 2019 the sales total was £45.5 million ($57.7 million), and 161 lots, or 81 percent, out of the 198 lots offered found buyers.

This year, the house opted for a single sale beginning at 2 p.m. Initially they offered a total of 116 lots, much smaller than the combined lot total of the day and evening sales in June 2022 and 2019. The presale expectations were also a fraction of the past results.

Asked about the reason for the new format, Olivia Thornton, Phillips’s head of 20th Century and Contemporary art, Europe, told Artnet News via email that the house “views this as an opportunity to explore a new format for June in London as we continue to adapt to an ever-changing market. This approach aims to foster engaging dialogues between emerging voices and established masters, while illuminating exciting synergies between Modern and Contemporary art.”

Phillips London June 2023

Anna Weyant, Cloud Hill. Courtesy Phillips.

Leading the sale was Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale (1966-67), which achieved a hammer price of £450,000 ($571,729), below the low estimate of £550,000. The work sold for £571,500 ($721,633) including fees for the benefit of Museu Vassouras in Rio de Janeiro.

Five lots were withdrawn prior to the nearly three-hour sale. Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvas Concetto spaziale, Attese, the only work that had seven-figure estimates (£1.8 million/$2.3 million to £2.5 million/$3.1 million), was pulled at the last minute. Other withdrawn works included a large-scale piece by Anselm Kiefer that had presale expectations between £500,000 and £700,000 ($634,268 and $887,975).

“We had interest in both works prior to the sale but this did not meet the expectations of the sellers,” Thornton said. Two works by Andy Warhol and one by Hermann Nitsch were also withdrawn.

Two third-party guarantees were in place: for a Sarah Lucas sculpture and Georg Baselitz’s canvas work, Wel lam ruch nichtet mihr (Frebl aill lew) (2013). The Baselitz work hammered at the low estimate at £450,000 and sold for £571,500 ($721,633) including fees.

Phillips London June 2023

Doron Langberg, Dad (2016), hammered within presale expectations and sold for £40,640 including fees at Phillips London sale on June 30, 2023. Photo courtesy Phillips.

American artist Elizabeth Peyton’s eye-catching painting Prince Harry, September 1998 (1998) hammered at £385,000, below the low estimate of £400,000. The fee-inclusive price of £488,950 ($617,397), made it the third-priciest lot sold at the sale.

Some market darlings did not perform as well as expected. Painting Cloud Hill (2020) by Anna Weyant, one of the hottest names in the art market last year, hammered at £225,000, below the low estimate of £250,000. The work sold for £285,750 ($360,817) including fees. The three Damien Hirst works sold to raise funds for the Ruwenzori Foundation all hammered at prices below their low estimate. Works by Emily Mae Smith, Shara Hughes, George Condo, and a work by Kusama failed to find buyers.

Nine out of the 24 works from the collection of the late lawyer and art collector Thomas B. Lemann were offered with no reserves. Among them, Bernard Meadows’s two works on paper hammered at £100, against the low estimate of £700. Adding fees, the work sold for £127 ($161). Phillips’s Thornton noted that “it is not uncommon to offer lots with no reserve,” and said the collection was “well priced and fresh to the market, and buyers responded by engaging with enthusiasm.” The collection achieved a total of £641,985 ($815,320), including fees.

Nevertheless, Friday’s sale saw artist records set for Ellen Berkenblit, Duncan McCormick, Ludovic Nkoth, and Sayre Gomez. Among them, McCormick’s 2022 work Trevor’s Dream hammered at £140,000—14 times the low estimate. It sold for £177,800 ($224,508) including fees, breaking a record set earlier this year.


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