Phillips de Pury's Tepid $12.9 Million Sale Opens the London Contemporary Art Auctions on a Shaky Note

Maurizio Cattelan's "Turisti" (1997) was among the artworks included in Phillips de Pury's contemporary art evening sale.
(Courtesy Phillips de Pury)

With barely a tailwind from the VIP opening of the Frieze Art Fair, Phillips de Pury encountered an indecisive market for contemporary art, achieving and underperforming £8,249,950 ($12,889,900) against a pre-sale estimate of £9.9-14.4 million. Twenty-three of the 35 lots offered sold for a buy-in rate of 34 percent by lot and by 25 percent by value.

Two artist records were set, and Jeff Koons's cover lot, "Seal Walrus Trashcans," a playful 2003-2009 piece of polychromed aluminum and galvanized-steel beach toys, was the sole million-pound-plus lot, fetching £2.1 million ($3.3 million) against an £2-3 million estimate.

Virtually all of the sold lots went to anonymous telephone bidders, even though the boutique firm's Howick Place salesroom in Victoria was packed at standing-room capacity. It was a sharp contrast to last June's £11.2 million evening sale when Phillips rented the tony ballroom at top-class Claridge's Hotel in Mayfair. Apparently, there were scheduling difficulties to secure the ballroom, a preferable locale for deep-pocketed players, this time around.

The big question hovering over the mild-mannered, low-voltage auction was how badly world events and the global economic crises would impact on buyers. Similar to the mood and sales activity at Frieze in Regents Park, bidding was measured and almost miserly, apart from several significant rushes for younger art.

That was hard to discern, however, with the first-lot fireworks for Walead Beshty's clever "20-inch Copper (FedEx® Large Kraft Box© 2005 FEDEX 330508)..." from 2005, a sculpture sent through the mail and still bearing its International priority Los Angeles-London paperwork and tracking number, that sold to a telephone bidder for a record £46,850 ($73,199) on an estimate of £20-30,000. Then Tauba Auerbach's fuzzy and out-of-focus patterned abstraction, "CMY 5" from 2008 in acrylic on paper and mounted on a wood panel, notched another artist record, fetching £49,250 ($76,949) against a £15-20,000 estimate.


And it set no benchmarks, Maurizio Cattelan's three-inch-high bug in ceramic and metal from 1995, cast from an edition of three, sold for £91,250 ($142,571) on an estimate of £50-70,000. Paris dealer Emmanuel Perrotin was the underbidder.

Younger artists currently enjoying (it would seem) the limelight of international ardor also did well as wunderkind Jacob Kassay's glossy untitled 2010 abstraction in silver deposit and string on canvas made £163,250 ($257,161), overshooting its £50-70,000 estimate. Now that's what you would call a quick conversion to the secondary market.

A large and impressive four-part folded-and-shaped set of canvases by the late Steven Parrino, titled "Creeping Eye" and dating from 1993, sold for £361,250 ($564,424) on a £300-500,000 estimate. Belgian collector Mark Vanmoerkerke was the underbidder.


"I think it was a solid sale," noted the collector as he rushed out of the salesroom. "Young guys sold really well, and there were some bargains for more classic pieces." Vanmoerkerke's positive report card is probably good news for a market overrun with contemporary material.

There was relatively little classic work, so to speak, though Ed Ruscha's "Judy," a silhouette-cast word painting from 1992, went for a mild £193,250 ($301,938) on its £180-220,000 estimate.

Some artists had downright bad nights. One of these was the overly prolific American painter George Condo, whose New Museum-organized survey show opens at the Hayward Gallery here later this month. Both entries, "Cave Painting" from 2008 and "Two Works (1) The Departure, 2004 (ii) The Arrival" from 2004, failed to sell against their respective estimates of £300-500,000 and £300-400,000. There were plenty of Condo paintings on view at Frieze, and the hunger simply wasn't there to suck these up.

"There has been a lot on the market," confirmed Phillips contemporary head Michael McGinnis after the sale, adding that the overall result for Phillips may have been a "reaction to so much material on the market." He added that, "it was definitely an uncertain time coming into this week, and in a climate like this it's hard to predict whatthe outcome will be."

Of the relatively big-ticket items that made over £400,000, two works by Damien Hirst squeaked by as "Observations – The Crown of Justice," a shaped, stain-glass-effect 2006composition of butterflies and household gloss on canvas, sold for £780,450 ($1.2 million) against an estimate of £700,000-1 million, and an 84-inch dot painting in the round, "5-Aminouracil" from 2007, made £690,850 ($1.1 million) on its estimate of £600-800,000. "Crown of Justice" was one of a handful of works that carried financial guarantees.

During the bidding on the second Hirst, Mercury Group principal Leonid Friedland, Phillips's majority stakeholder, walked up to the Russian-speaking Phillips specialist Svetlana Marich, who was taking telephone bids on the work, and pow-wowed with her — a relatively unusual occurrence during an auction. He probably wasn't talking about the weather, and it was unclear whether he was coaching the bidding. It did provide some welcome spectator interest, at least, since virtually all of the action was dominated by the telephone bank.

Two other works bearing the security of financial guarantees also sold at the low end of expectations, with Richard Prince's densely quoted joke painting "My Life as a Weapon" from 2007 sold for £541,250 ($845,660) on an estimate of £500-700,000, and Cecily Brown's brushy 2004 diptych on linen, "Park," realized £421,250 ($658,169) against a £400-600,000 estimate.

The evening action resumes tomorrow at Sotheby's, where richer property will also be tested.