Third-Party Guarantees Carry Phillips de Pury to an Unremarkable $71.3 Million Contemporary Art Sale

Primed by a zesty 21-lot contemporary art benefit for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation that rang up an above-estimate $2,682,000, Phillips de Pury & Company went onto its regular evening auction that tallied a decent $71,292,500. 

The Guggenheim “international gala” drew good-hearted bidding for the artist-donated works, and patrons didn’t have to pay the usual buyer’s premium, thanks to the auction house’s largesse.

Maurizio Cattelan’s newly fabricated “Others” (2011), composed of 11 taxidermied pigeons, sold to storied Chicago collector Stefan Edlis for a top-lot $580,000 (est. $300-500,000). Nate Lowman’s “This Marilyn,” also from 2011, in oil and alkyd on linen, drew a flurry of bids to hit a record $240,000 (est. $40,000-60,000).

That feel-good atmosphere, along with the newly installed plush carpeting, contributed to the relative success of the main event, comprising 44 lots estimated to fetch between $66.1-97.3 million. Thirty-seven of the 44 lots offered sold for a trim buy-in rate of 16 percent by lot and six percent by value. Seven of those sold for over $3 million, and of that elite group three exceeded the $5 million mark.

It was a huge improvement over last year’s result of $19.9 million and a similar buy-in rate by lot. That pre-sale estimate was a petite $23.6-34.2 million. 

Still, it was somewhat a guessing game in determining how well the higher-priced works fared this round, since virtually all of the big lots carried anonymous third-party guarantees, assuring a decent outcome even if no live bids came from the salesroom.

The top lot, Cy Twombly’s late and bloody red looped abstraction, “Untitled” from 2006, sold to a telephone bidder for $9,042,500 (est. $8-12 million). It beat out Andy Warhol’s cover lot, “Nine Gold Marilyns (Reversal Series)” from 1980, another financially guaranteed entrée that went to another telephone bidder for $7,922,500 (est. $7-10 million). Beyond the chandelier bids launched by Simon de Pury, the auctioneer and Phillips chairman, there was only the lone telephone bidding.

Phillips, of course, isn’t alone in the third-party guarantee racket, since bigger rivals Christie’s and Sotheby’s employ similar and equally opaque guarantees. “A big part of the business today is third-party guarantees,” said Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s contemporary head. “They’ve definitely become a key component and an industry standard.”

Still, you wonder how the house would have fared without them.

One of the stronger results, in fact, involved another guaranteed lot, Richard Prince’s sultry 80-by-52-inch “Runaway Nurse” (2006) that sold to a telephone bidder for $6,802,500 (est. $5-7 million). Unlike the Warhol, it was chased by three telephone bidders. The record for a Prince from this series was achieved in July 2008, when £4,241,250 million ($8.4 million) was paid for "Overseas Nurse" (2002) at Sotheby's London.

Phillips had a tougher time selling classic works free of guarantees, as evidenced by the buy-ins of Joan Mitchell's "Untitled" canvas from 1981 (est. $350,000-450,000) and Philip Guston's more significant "Path III" from 1960 (est. $1.5-2.5 million), consigned by a New Orleans collector.  The house had better luck with Sam Francis's mural scaled, aptly titled abstraction, "Blue Balls I" from 1960, that sold to Chicago dealer Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery for $1,594,500 (est. $1.5-2 million). 

Back on the more contemporary side, a trio of Christopher Wool paintings from an American collection found solid reception, led by the densely patterned, ink-blot-branded “Untitled (P177)” from 1993 that sold for $2,210,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million). New York dealer Stellan Holm was the underbidder. The other two Wool entries, also painted on aluminum panels, were snared by New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi, who nabbed the earlier “Untitled (P63)” from 1988 for $842,500 (est. $700,000-900,000) and “Untitled (P71)” from the same year for $1,370,500 (est. $1-1.5 million).

“I thought it was a solid, good sale,” mused Mugrabi, who is better known for stocking up on Warhols and Hirsts, shortly after exiting the salesroom.

Speaking of Hirst, it was an eye-rubbing-in-disbelief moment to see fashion outfitter Tommy Hilfiger outgun telephone bidders for Hirst’s butterfly-encrusted, stained-glass-window-effect “Disintegration the Crown of Life” (2006) for $1,426,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million). It too carried a financial guarantee, as did Jeff Koons’s cute and stubby 1986 “Cape Codder Troll” in stainless steel, which fetched $578,500 (est. $600,000-700,000). The Koons last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2001 for £63,750 ($90,195), not exactly a stellar investment after a 10-year absence from the market.

That return looked rather puny compared to the lone Alexander Calder entry, the painted-metal “Trepied” from 1972 that sold to international art trader David Nahmad for $5,682,500 (est. $5-7 million). Nahmad immediately exited the salesroom as if in a rush to make a dinner reservation. In any case, the large-scale stabile last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 1999 for $1,542,500.

Another auction retread was Maurizio Cattelan’s once terribly controversial “Frank and Jamie,” a pair of life-size, wax-cast, upended New York City policemen from 2002 that sold to a telephone bidder for $2,322,500 (est. $2-3 million). Though it was unclear from the catalogue what number it was from the edition of three plus one artist proof, a version most recently sold at Phillips de Pury a year ago in New York for $1,594,500. I guess you could say that’s easy money.

The controversy over the figures — which, technically, are garbed in uniforms from the NYC Housing Authority — was over the smiling and ineffectual officers being positioned upside down, just after the horrors of 9/11.

Still, the evening gave a relative leg up to the big week ahead as Anish Kapoor’s brilliantly reflective and echo-chamber-like “Untitled” disc from 2008, executed in stainless steel, sold to the telephone for $1,314,500 (est. $800-1.2 million). Larry Gagosian was the underbidder.

“They’re getting more traction,” Gagosian said in complementing Phillips de Pury’s evening. “There’re on the map now, and up there with the big boys.” The megadealer was successful in snaring Richard Serra’s two-part Cor-ten steel sculpture “Palms” from 1985 for a record $2,322,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million).

The evening action continues Tuesday at Christie’s.