Led by $10.8 M. Lichtenstein, Phillips Earns Solid $68 M. in Contemporary Art Sale

After an uneven pair of Impressionist and modern sales last week in New York, at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Phillips kicked off this week’s postwar and contemporary sales with an auction tonight at its East 57th Street headquarters that brought in $68 million, with 35 of 40 lots; a solid 88 percent of the artworks found buyers. That total, which includes buyer’s premiums of between 12 percent and 25 percent depending on the price of the lot, was just good enough to edge into the sale’s $65.1 million to $97.4 million estimate, which is calculated sans premium, but was a modest drop from Phillips’s $79.9 million haul at the same auction last November, when it was still known as Phillips de Pury & Company.

Former Phillips partner Simon de Pury, characteristically natty in a blue suit, white shirt, and tie, watched from the audience with his wife, Michaela, as the serious but polished young gaveler,  Eton-educated Alexander Gilkes, ably led the sale.

It was a largely sedate affair, with plenty of lots selling to telephone bidders and only a few genuine duels, but things started off with the bang with the auction-house debut of the 24-year-old artist Lucien Smith. His more-than-10-foot-tall painting of the pastoral backdrop from a Winnie-the-Pooh film, dated 2011, had been tagged with a $100,000–$150,000 estimate, but it sold after fevered bidding across the audience and phones for $389,000. If that’s not the sign of an overheated, irrational market, I don’t know what is.

In total, there were five artist records set, for Mr. Smith, Nate Lowman, David Hammons, Kazuo Shiraga (how great would it be to see more Gutai work at these things?) and Jacob Kassay.

Four lots into the sale, there were more fireworks with an orange abstract painting by Marc Grotjahn that sold to Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery for $3.6 million against a pre-sale estimate of $2-3 million. Mr. Grotjahn’s auction record, set at Leonardo de Caprio’s charity auction at Christie’s earlier this year, is $6.5 million, but the painting that sold tonight was much smaller than the record-setting painting, making it notable.

David Zwirner, sitting near the back of the packed crowd fended off a handful of bidders on the phones and in the room to pick up the Hammons, a combination basketball backboard and chandelier from 2000 (one of three unique editions), for its high estimate, $7 million hammer ($8.01 million with premium), trouncing the artist’s previous record of $2.27 million, which was set at Sotheby’s New York for an assemblage two years back.

Mr. Zwirner came to spend. He also snapped up a 1988 wooden Jeff Koons sculpture of Buster Keaton for $4.42 million, a figure that roughly matches the $4.34 million that the artist’s proof made at Christie’s New York five years back, in the throes of the financial crisis. (It’s an edition of three with one AP.)

Mr. Koons’s longtime dealer, Larry Gagosian, who was recently joined in that role by Mr. Zwirner, was seated near the front of the room, and also made use of his paddle, snapping up Ed Ruscha’s excellent 2007 diptych Higher Standards/Lower Prices for a squarely-within-estimate $2.41 million. The same work sold for just $1.43 million three years back at Phillips de Pury & Company in the sale of disgraced C-Net founder Halsey Minor’s art collection, meaning that, even factoring in taxes, insurance and so forth, tonight’s seller turned a handsome little profit. Another Ruscha painting, Angry People (1973), its title spelled out in black letters across a green canvas, made $845,000 on a $600,000–$800,000 estimate. (These are sizable numbers, no doubt, but Mr. Ruscha’s prices remain astoundingly low compared to his art-historical achievements.)

After the Ruscha, the failures began.

First a small, untitled Cy Twombly from 1969 was bought in. Then one of the evening’s highest-priced lots, a black and gray Marc Rothko painting from 1969–70, estimated at $10 million to $15 million, failed to find a bidder at $9 million, despite Mr. Gilkes’s extreme patience.

“$9 million,” Mr. Gilkes began, beseeching the audience, searching for a bidder. “$9 million now, $9 million, at $9 million, $9 million now.” He turned to Jean-Michel Placent, a senior specialist, who was working a phone. “Michel, you seem like you might be mustering up a bid, at $9 million. $9 million. A bid here?” Silence. “At $9 million now. I’ll wait for you to confirm, $9 million. I’ll move this along.” More silence. “I have time for a bid of this enormity, $9 million. $9 million. Some negotiations going on here. Give me some indication. $9 million. We’re moving this along. $9 million then. You’re sure? Last chance. The room, the rest of the phones, and to you, $9 million, all done.” He brought down his gavel, and it passed to loud murmurs.

“Before the sale it looked like we had interest, and it didn’t materialize,” Phillips CEO Michael McGinnis said after the auction, of the Rothko, standing just a few years away from its spot on the wall above the telephones. “There was more than one person interested before the sale and unfortunately it didn’t go. We believe in the quality of the piece, and I think it’s a gorgeous painting. Maybe we’ll have some after selling.”

Luckily for Phillips, one of the evening’s other star lots, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Woman With Peanuts, which was once owned by the artist George Segal and was also marked at $10 million to $15 million, skated through at $10.81 million, selling to a phone. It was the top lot of the evening, followed by Andy Warhol’s clever Nine Gold Marilyns (Reversal Series), which made $9.13 million on an $8 million–$12 million estimate, a slight uptick from the $7.92 million that it earned at Phillips de Pury & Company when it was offered in November of 2011. The winning paddle, which appeared to belong to the Warhol-mad Mugrabi family (their positioning made this difficult to confirm), also snapped up Warhol’s 1962 Dance Steps drawing for $1.45 million, a good jump from the $825,000 it pulled at Sotheby’s New York in 2007.

Other casualties were less damaging to the boutique house’s total than the Rothko. They included a 1982 Wayne Thiebaud painting of highways, a late Warhol (1985–86) showing the Soviet Union’s missile bases and a slapdash Basquiat drawing from 1982. A Basquiat self-portrait painting from 1985 went for a disappointing $3.3 million. The same piece sold just two years ago at Phillips de Pury and Company in London for $3.29 million. (It made $647,500 in New York at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in 2003.)

“The results at the end of the day were pretty predictable aside from [the Rothko],” Mr. McGinnis said. Indeed, seven of the 40 lots, including many of the big-ticket items, carried guarantees, meaning that someone had already agreed to purchase the work, usually near the low estimate, a fact that drained drama from the sale. After the halfway point of the roughly 60-minute sale, as bidders started to leave, and bidding often crept along in small increments. “We worship and embrace all big steps!” Mr. Gilkes declared, thanking a bidder who shot up the price of an On Kawara from May 10, 1989 at an above-average interval.

The bidding was strongest among the more unusual lots, like a bright David Hockney from 1992 that went for $869,000 (well above its $550,000 high estimate, to a face in the room that was new to me and who promptly exited the scene) and the younger and less-expensive living artists, like Rob Pruitt and Oscar Murillo, who recently joined Zwirner and whose huge untitled painting from 2011 (quite the devoted collector!), sailed past its $100,000–$150,000 estimate to a $290,000 finish, selling to a phone after some tough competition in the room. There was a smattering of applause, but by that point the room was mostly empty.

The auction action continues tomorrow at Christie’s.

Dan Duray, The New York Observer‘s auction reporter, is off tonight. All auction data is courtesy Artnet.

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