LONDON — Phillips, the Russian owned boutique-scaled auction house, opened a new chapter in London Thursday evening with a fast-paced and younger auctioneer, Alexander Gilkes, replacing the departed and storied gavel master Simon de Pury.
In barely 50 minutes, the house sold a modest £9,762,950 ($15,132,573) worth of art against pre-sale expectations of £10.4-14.8 million. Twenty-seven of the 33 lots offered sold for a decent buy-in rate by lot of 18 percent and 20 percent by value. Two works sold for over a million pounds, and four exceeded the million-dollar mark.
The tally improved on last February’s £5,695,550 ($8,974,478) result, though that sale had a skinny eight percent buy-in rate by lot.
One of the strongest pieces in the sale, Cecily Brown’s large, 75-by-75 inch, playful narrative “East of Eden” oil on linen from 1999, sold to a telephone bidder for £724,450/$1,122,898 (est. £600-800,000), and was one of only four works that made over one million dollars.
Two artist records were set tonight, including the opening lot, Nate Lowman’s “Green Escalade,” a 60-inch shaped silkscreen ink on canvas, part of the artist’s bullet hole series from 2005, that sold to New York dealer Jose Mugrabi for £337,250 ($522,728) (est. £60-80,000).
Fellow New York dealer Stellan Holms was part of the posse of underbidders.
The other record went to New York artist Ryan Sullivan for his thickly impastoed abstraction in oil, enamel and latex on canvas, “July 24,2011-September 28, 2011” (2011), that sold to a telephone bidder for £91,250 ($141,438) (est. £30-40,000).
This time around, Phillips had just a few third-party guaranteed lots and as a result, fewer splashy pictures, though one of them, Mark Grotjahn’s colored pencil on paper “Untitled (Black and Canary Yellow butterfly) #699” abstraction from 2008 sold to a bidder in the room for £457,250 ($708,738).
Jose Mugrabi was the underbidder and easily deserved the evening’s most valuable bidder award, as he snagged Christopher Wool’s large-scaled, black-on-white patterned abstraction, “Untitled (P271)” (1997), in enamel on aluminum, which made £1,665,250 ($2,581,138) (est. £1.3-1.8 million). Montreal collector/dealer Francois Odermatt was the underbidder.
“I paid the maximum,” said Mugrabi after his flurry of bidding on the Wool, “but when you get a good piece it always becomes cheap at the end.”
That has proved to be sage advice for a seasoned art market player.
Mugrabi also bought Andy Warhol’s “Tomato Juice Box” in silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood from 1964 for £223,250 ($346,038) (est. £200-300,000) and that last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2010 for $422,500. Mugrabi said he missed bidding on another Warhol, the jazzier “Brillo Soap Pads Box,” from the same year and made of the same materials as the Tomato Juice Box (though this example included the original plastic wrap). It bought in at £420,000 (est. £600-800,000) while he chatted on his cell phone.
He got off the call in time to nab another Warhol, “Hammer and Sickle” (1977), signed and inscribed by the artist for £247,250 ($383,238) (est. £200-300,000).
There was an ugly moment in the evening, six lots after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” pastel, oilstick, colored crayon and charcoal on paper composition from 1982 expired at £1.6 million ($2.5 million) (est. £1.8-2.5 million).
Auctioneer Alexander Gilkes re-opened the bidding on the spurned Basquiat immediately after Jean Dubuffet’s “Le Chien Rodeur” from 1955, the oldest dated piece in the auction, sold to a telephone bidder for £325,250 ($504,138) (est. £400-600,000). It last sold at auction in the important single-owner Stanley Seeger sale at Sotheby’s New York in May 2001 for $511,750, making it an excellent picture but a lousy return.
In less than a minute, the born-again Basquiat sold to a telephone bidder for the evening’s top lot price, £1,945,250 ($3,015,138).
After the sale, Michael McGinnis, the firm’s CEO and worldwide head of contemporary art, said it was an unfortunate incident, but put the blame on a technology glitch, explaining, “It was a connection failure from one of my colleagues on the phone and it’s not something typically done, but at the end of the day, it was a good price for a Basquiat work on paper.”
“It was a bit fishy they went back to the Basquiat,” said London dealer Omer Tiroche, who bought Yan Pei-Ming’s oil on canvas “Invisible Man n. 1, 2000” (2000) for £163,250 ($253,038) (est. £200-300,000).
Tiroche, the son of veteran art dealer Micky Tiroche, characterized the Phillips’ material “as weak in my opinion.”
Back to the third-party guarantee front, Damien Hirst’s “Untitled #2 (Spot Painting)” from 1992 sold to Mugrabi for £295,250 ($457,638) (est. £300-500,000), which last sold at Christie’s London in February 2004 for £139,650 ($256,662) and
Marc Quinn’s “Frozen Head,” a unique piece comprised of 10 kilograms of 18-carat gold and dated from 2009, sold to a telephone bidder for £713,250 ($1,105,538).
Though lacking the imaginary drama and sometimes overwrought antics that de Pury consistently brought to auction, no matter what the result, auctioneer Gilkes, co-founder of the online auction platform Paddle 8, articulately and crisply navigated through the entries and made quite an impressive evening sale debut.
“Simon (de Pury) was an incredible mentor to me,” said Gilkes after the sale, “and he started me off on the charity circuit (of auctioneering) before he let me take my first sale in New York in 2009.”
Gilkes said his auctioneering bouts at Phillips will be a part-time affair, “taking 10 to 15 days of my year.”
If the auction house can source good property at the right estimates, Phillips has a decent shot at building on its youthful role as the contemporary-art friendly boutique auction house.