"The Audience Seemed a Bit Quiet": A Tepid Auction for Phillips de Pury London

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Big Joy" (1984) sold for £2,617,250 ($4,189,170)
(Courtesy of Phillips de Pury & Company)

LONDON—With the attention-grabbing backdrop of three art fairs and more evening auctions to come, Phillips de Pury’s lead-off evening sale delivered a tepid £12,223,600 ($19,435,524). The tally fell shy of the £14,960,000-22,080,000 ($23,786,400-35,107,200) pre-sale expectations.

All of the final prices include the buyer’s premium calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to £25,000, then 20 percent up to and including £500,000, and 12 percent thereafter. Twenty-four of the 36 lots offered sold for a sluggish buy-in rate of 33 percent by lot and 23 percent by value.


Three lots made over a million pounds (four by dollars), and two young artist records were set, including one for Dan Colen’s rather abstract chewing gum on canvas composition, “Happy Accidents, Happy Endings” (2010), which sold to a telephone bidder for £121,250 ($192,788) (est. £80-120,000).

Most of the action took place anonymously over telephones, though Christopher Wool’s luminous enamel-on-metal abstraction, “Untitled” (1985) sold for £361,250 ($574,880) (est. £200-300,000) to a young Asian buyer seated in the back of the sales room, outgunning New York collector/dealer Jose Mugrabi.

Mugrabi also underbid Andy Warhol’s pre-silkscreen black-and-white “Watches” (1961), which sold to a telephone manned by Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s newly appointed CEO and longtime head of contemporary art. The final bid was £1,004,450 ($1,597,076) (est. £1-2 million).

The Warhol had last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005 for $1,136,000. This sale, therefore, represented a surprisingly skimpy return for the seller.

After consecutive buy-ins of lots by John Baldessari and Robert Longo, the salesroom came alive again as London dealer Timothy Taylor snagged Sean Scully’s jumbo-sized oil-on-linen checkerboard-pattern abstraction, “Homo Duplex” (1993) for £601,250 ($955,988) (est. £500-700,000).

The identical price against the identical estimate greeted Damien Hirst’s butterflies and household gloss paint “Sad Steps-Life Fulfilled” (2006), which strongly resembles a stained glass cathedral window. That work went to a telephone bidder. Both of those lots were backed by financial guarantees.

The security of financial guarantees on pricier lots also helped Louise Bourgeois’s crouching, phallus-equipped and big breasted male/female creature, “Nature Study” in biscuit porcelain from 1996 (cast in 2004), sell to the telephone for £713,250 ($1,134,068) (est. £600-800,000). 

The two top lots went to the market’s current superheroes, as Gerhard Richter’s large-scaled “Abstraktes Bild” (1977) sold to yet another telephone bidder for £2,449,450 ($3,894,308) (est. £2.5-3.5 million) and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s fierce cover lot, the surly-looking, seven-foot-high female figure “Big Joy” (1984), in acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage, sold to a private European collector for £2.617,250 ($4,161,428) (est. £2.5-3.5 million).

Buttonholed moments after his purchase, the collector declined to give his name, though he thoughtfully noted, “It’s a good picture and Basquiats are getting very expensive at the 1981-82 levels, and these later ones are beginning to appreciate.”

After the sale, Phillips struck an upbeat note despite the shallow bidding. “There were quite a few more unsold lots than we expected,” said Michael McGinnis, “and the audience seemed a bit quiet. But overall, we’re happy with the results.”

McGinnis said it was still too early in the week to make predictions about the health of the contemporary market and added, “The amount of fairs (Frieze Art Fair, Frieze Masters and PAD) and the amount of auctions may have had some impact. Perhaps people aren’t quite settled yet.”

That perception will be further tested tomorrow evening (Thursday) at the significantly larger and higher-valued Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction.

To see lots from the Phillips de Pury & Co. sale in London, click on the slideshow.