Phillips de Pury & Company Nets $86.9 Million, Crowned by a Record $16.3-Million Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled," 1981 (detail)
(Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company)

NEW YORK — The spring contemporary evening auction season in New York ended on solid ground at the boutique-scaled Phillips de Pury & Company, turning in a respectable $86,897,500 total. That figure fell midway between pre-sale expectations of $75.9-110.7 million. Thirty-five of the 44 lots sold for a decent buy-in rate of 20 percent by lot and a frothier eight percent by value. Fifteen of the sold works made over $1 million and of those, six hurdled the $5 million mark and more impressively, and three made over $10 million dollars.

Though it fell short of last May’s $94.8 million result, tonight’s crisp cavalcade of offerings didn’t have a $27-million Warhol named “Liz #5 (Early Colored Liz),” the work that drove last May’s evening. Still, the undisputed star this round at Phillips was a fiercely vibrant and fresh-to-market Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on wood, “Untitled” (1981) offered from the noted collection of Washington D.C. seller Robert Lehrman. The halo-crowned, full-frontal male nude sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $16,322,500 (est. $9-12 million).

Queried about the painting well before the auction season ignited, Lehrman described his first impression of seeing it at Nosei's back in the day: "I was just knocked out. I thought it was bold and bright and beautiful and  had a powerful presence, which grew as I lived with it."

Asked if the decision to buy it was labored, the collector said, "I didn't hesitate for a second."

At least three telephone bidders chased the exuberantly painted composition that Lehrman acquired from the storied Anina Nosei Gallery in Soho back in 1982. It cracked the mark set by another untitled Basquiat from the same year that sold for $14.6 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007. The pristinely sassy Basquiat was one of three works from Lehrman, two of which featured third-party financial guarantees.

The other kit included Richard Prince’s iconic Ektacolor photograph, “Untitled (Cowboy)” (1980-84), which sold to New York dealer Philippe Segalot for $1,426,500 (est. $800,000-1.2 million) and Cindy Sherman’s 30-by-40-inch, black-and-white gelatin silver print “Untitled Film Still #4” (1972), which sold to New York dealer Per Skarstedt for $338,500 (est. $400-600,000).

It seemed improbable — in the hazy afterglow of the newbie Frieze art fair on Randall’s Island last week and the spate of contemporary art auctions this week — that there was any money left over to fuel the contemporary art market. But there was plenty of wonga around for the Willem de Kooning’s handsome, 80-by-70-inch cover lot abstraction, “Untitled VI” (1975), which sold to a telephone bidder for $12,402,500 (est. $10-15 million). New York dealer Robert Mnuchin was the underbidder. The guaranteed de Kooning last sold at auction in May 2000 at Sotheby’s New York for $1,380,750.

On the decorative front, Christopher Wool's floral-patterned "Untitled (P 66)" (1988), in alkyd and flashe on aluminum panel, sold to Paris dealer John Sayegh Belchatowski for $722,500 (est. $700,000-1 million). "Wool is the best of the best," crowed Belchatowski about his purchase. "I buy all the Wool I can."

A trio of mid-range Andy Warhol paintings cushioned the top 10 entries, led by the authoritative “Mao” (1973), which sold to New York dealer Hugo Nathan of Simon Dickinson Gallery for $10,386,500 (est. $9-12 million). It last sold at auction in November 1991 at Sotheby’s New York for a hard-to-believe $165,000. Like many of the top offerings, the painting carried a third-party financial guarantee, meaning that an investor outside of Phillips guaranteed a minimum price for the lot.

Another Warhol, menacing in black and white, “Gun” (1981-82), featuring a snub-nosed .22 caliber revolver consuming the canvas, sold to another telephone bidder for $7,026,500 (est. $5-7 million). New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi was the underbidder.

Buttonholed outside the firm’s Park Avenue and 57th Street location moments after the sale, Mugrabi said, “after three nights in a row, it’s a clear indication that great things bring great prices.” (Ironically, at least in terms of great things, the 1961 Mark Rothko, “Orange, Red, yellow” sold for $86.8 million at Christie’s on Tuesday evening — $15,000 less than the entire Phillips’ evening sale. But everything can’t be a masterpiece, either real or imagined.)

Another Warhol, the blatantly patriotic and camouflage patterned “Statue of Liberty” (1986), measuring 72 by 72 inches, sold to New York dealer Jeannie Greenberg of Salon 94 for $2,434,500 (est. $2-3 million). It was made in honor of the statue’s centennial arrival in Amerca, at least according to the auction catalogue notes on the lot.

Phillips is known for its championing of younger artists, often debuting rising stars in the salesroom, but this time out the fare was more conservative or classic, as demonstrated by Cy Twombly’s austere-yet-beautiful “Untitled (Bolsena)” (1969), executed in house paint, wax crayon, and pencil. It sold to a telephone bidder for $6,242,500 (est. $6-8 million). Arguably that made it a great buy, given its generous size (79 by 94¾ inches), and the fact that it hailed from the artist’s (no kidding) gray period. It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2004 for $2,920,000.

On the lighter side, Maurizio Cattelan’s wonderful “Daddy Daddy,” featuring the Pinocchio figure in polyurethane resin and steel floating face down in a pool of water (just as another version from the edition had at the Guggenheim in 2008 for the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever”) sold for $2,546,500 (est. $2.5 -3.5 million).

On the darker side, several notable buy-ins cast question marks about the strength of the market. Richard Prince’s rather muddy looking “Emergency Nurse” (2004), fully garbed in nursing regalia and decently sized, failed to elicit a single bid (est. $3-5 million). More shocking still, given his super-charged place in the art market, Gerhard Richter’s mid-sized “Abstraktes Bild (638-4)” (1987) also bombed without a single bid (est. $3-5 million).

No market is perfect and a number of seasoned veterans of the contemporary persuasion applauded Phillips’ evening. “This is the best material Phillips has offered,” said Don Rubell, the Miami collector and family museum patriarch. “It’s also the strongest auction Phillips has had.”

Michael McGinnis, Phillips’ head of contemporary art, expressed satisfaction with the results, noting, “the art market looks very strong and this location has opened the door to a lot of new potential.”

To see images from Phillips de Pury & Co.'s contemporary art auction, click on the slide show.