Phillips Nets $86.9 M. at Contemporary Art Sale, Buoyed by Record $16.3 M. Basquiat

A work on wood by Jean-Michel Basquiat set a new record for the artist at auction, selling for $16.3 million with premium at an otherwise by-the-numbers sale on Thursday evening at Phillips de Pury & Company, where auctioneer Simon de Pury hammered down a total of $75.9 million ($86.9 with premium), squeaking by at exactly the low estimate on a sale that was estimated to go as high as $110.7 million.

The Basquiat, a moderate-sized, colorful painting of a man, Untitled, from 1981, slowly climbed to its hammer price of $14.5 million, mostly through bids from the phones. That number already put it over the previous record set by an untitled piece from 1982 that sold for $13.5 million with premium at Christie’s New York in 2008. (All prices include buyer’s premium, unless noted.)

“I was going to buy it at $9 million,” said Upper East Side dealer Christophe Van de Weghe after the sale. His eyes had bulged slightly as the piece climbed into eight figures.

The painting came from the collection of Washington, D.C., collector Robert Lehrman, who recently wandered the art fairs with art critic Peter Schjeldahl for his recent piece in The New Yorker on art fairs, and is by no means an ideal example of the artist’s work. “It’s not that big, and it’s on wood, which isn’t for everybody,” Mr. Van de Weghe added. “It’s good that he has a new auction record, but I’ve known ones to go for much more on the private market.”

Dealer and collector Alberto Mugrabi said after the sale that he too had seen Basquiats trading for more than this one on the private market. A man with him chimed in that he had just bought two Basquiats from Mr. Mugrabi, both in the $20-million range.

Of the 44 lots on offer, nine went unsold, a respectable sell-through rate of 80 percent by lot. Just over half the lots sold within or over their pre-sale estimates.

Seth Price and Dana Schutz also scored new auction highs, at $92,500 and $482,500, respectively. The Schutz, a 2003 painting called Death Comes to Us All, came from the collection of Charles Saatchi, who also sold a Sterling Ruby sculpture at the auction that hammered within estimate at $170,000 ($206,500 with premium).

The second-highest lot was a Willem de Kooning painting from 1975, Untitled VI, which sold to a phone bidder after a battle with a room bidder, for $12.4 million, within its pre-sale estimate. During bidding on the painting, a dark-haired woman in one of the skyboxes caused a distraction by outstretching her hands over the room and closing her eyes, causing most in the audience to turn around and ponder this mystic gesture.

Two pieces at the sale notably sold for less than they’d made previously at auction, at the height of the last market boom. A 1986 Robert Mangold painting that sold to its current owner at Sotheby’s New York in May, 2008, for $937,000 made $602,500 tonight. And a Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a popsicle, a hammer and a price tag, made in 1961-62, which sold to tonight’s consignor for $632,000 in 2006 at Christie’s New York made only $458,500 this evening.

At Sotheby’s last night, a painting by Cy Twombly made a new record of $17.4 million. Tonight, a 1969 painting by the artist went for a below-estimate $5.5-million hammer price ($6.2 million with premium), selling to an anonymous bidder on the telephone. It was acquired by its consignor at Sotheby’s New York in 2004 for $2.9 million.

Not to say that the night was without levity. Dealers Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Thaddaeus Ropac battled it out for Andy Warhol’s 1986 silkscreen Statue of Liberty. They happened to be seated directly next to one another. “It’s good you’re sitting next to each other, your taste is so similar,” Mr. de Pury quipped as the bidding progressed. Ms. Greenberg Rohatyn won the picture for $2.4 million, solidly within its pre-sale estimate.

Mr. de Pury tried to eke out a few more bids on a 2004 Richard Prince nurse painting, Emergency Nurse, by joking, “It can come in handy, an emergency nurse.” The line failed to save the patient, though, and the lot was bought in at just $1.8 million. The record for one of the artist’s nurse paintings is the $8.5 million achieved in July, 2008. Last November, Philips sold a nurse painting for $6.8 million. But tonight’s example wasn’t on a par with those, and the market responded accordingly.

“I certainly can’t complain,” Worldwide Director of Contemporary Art Michael McGinnis said of the sale at the press conference afterward. “Especially not after a long week of auctions.” He took a question about whether or not it might be better to go before Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “We’ve gone first in the past, we did in November, and we felt like the beginning wasn’t perfect. I think the ideal solution is to be somewhere in the middle and somehow we’re not invited into that club. Until then, we’ll keep finessing until we find what we feel is best.”

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