Emerging Artists Score Records at $79.9 M. Phillips Sale

This evening’s contemporary art auction at Phillips de Pury & Company, the last evening sale of the season, was something of a denouement as auctioneer Simon de Pury hammered down a solid sale that totaled $79.9 million against a presale estimate of $73.6 million to $110.7 million.

After the results last night at Christie’s, whose record-breaking evening sale of postwar and contemporary art brought in $412 million, the sale seemed a bit lackluster at times, though some results at Phillips were undoubtedly impressive. Early on, new auction records were set for Dan Colen and Tauba Auerbach, whose work was purchased for $290,500 with premium by Jose Mugrabi, Rashid Johnson and Sterling Ruby. The Ruby brought $626,500 with premium, selling to art adviser Julie Miyoshi, who bought it on behalf of a client.

“We were prepared to go a little higher,” Ms. Miyoshi said after the sale. “We really wanted it.”

Six artworks failed to sell, leading to a respectable sell-through rate of 83 percent by lot, though some big-ticket items fell notably short of expectations. A Gerhard Richter, Kegel (Cone) (1985), hammered for just $11 million, below an estimate of $12 million to $18 million. A Jean-Michel Basquiat, Humidity (1982) hammered for just $9 million, below its estimate of $12 million to $18 million, and a pair of Andy Warhols, one of Mao Zedong, the other of Jackie Kennedy, went at just above their low estimates. And all of those lots carried third-party guarantees, meaning they were pre-sold before the auction. Perhaps because it was the last auction of the season, there was a good amount of chatter in the room for the first few lots, despite the records, and it soon fell silent as the Richter, at lot 8, failed to meet its low estimate.

On the lower-end lots, however, there was plenty to like. Art advisor Patricia Marshall picked up a John Chamberlain sculpture for Eugenio Lopez’s Jumex Collection in Mexico. The Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac bought a work by George Baselitz, whom he represents, for $1.7 million with premium, and Italian dealer Nicolo Cardi bid on the Sterling Ruby, along with works by Rosemarie Trockel, Sturtevant and Richard Prince. The Prince, one of the artist’s to-the-margins, text-centric Joke Paintings, also saw bidding from Alberto Mugrabi and some unconventional banter from Mr. de Pury.

“I do recommend reading the joke,” he said after it hammered below estimate at $550,000. “I particularly like the second part of it.” (er, that half, verbatim, “TO A FRIEND, ‘DO YOU LIKE PUSSY?’ HE SAYS, ‘DO I LIKE PUSSY?’ ‘MAN IF IT WERE AIR-CONDITIONED I’D LIVE IN IT!'”)

It was something of a relaxed sale in general. Attendees lingered afterward. Dealer Helly Nahmad lectured a small group that included Leonardo DiCaprio before a Basquiat from the sale, looking very much like a docent as he explained the value of words like SAMO, or the image of a crown. “It’s always the question of quality versus real estate,” Mr. Nahmad told the group.

In a post-sale press conference, Phillips’ CEO Michael McGinnis said that despite just beating the low estimate he was “thrilled” with the results. He conceded that there were fewer bids than they might usually expect from such a sale, but there was “a lot of global coverage,” usually desirable for auction houses.

After the sale, Miami-based collector Donald Rubell, known for his prescience in acquiring work by emerging artists, looked past the mediocre prices of the top lots and praised Phillips for what it does best.

“It wasn’t the spectacular nature of last night’s sale,” he said, “but I think younger artists do better here than they do anywhere else.”

“I wish they’d stick to only young artists,” he added, “but I guess it’s very hard to make a living only doing young artists. We need [Phillips], it’s a great incubator. They’re doing a service to all of us, so if they want to sell the expensive stuff, they should sell it. But for cutting-edge artists, they’re the best.”

All prices courtesy of Artnet, all images courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company.

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