LONDON — In a modest sale by almost any standard, boutique firm Phillips sold £12,330,000 ($18,864,900) of contemporary art on Thursday in a sparsely attended salesroom in Victoria. While the audience was admittedly mostly young and extremely attractive, the usual gravitas of major international dealers was obviously absent. The tally barely hurdled the low-end of its £11.9-18.1 million pre-sale estimate once the cumulative buyer’s premiums were added and compared to last June’s £23.3 million ($36.2 million) result, appeared to be on a kind of art market crash diet. Still, all but two of the 27 lots offered found buyers for a top-class buy-in rate of eight percent by lot and 11 percent by value, putting duopoly giants Christie’s and Sotheby’s stats to shame. Then again, the auction took about 30 minutes from start to finish, compared to the two-hour plus marathons at the Mayfair sales on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings that cumulatively took in approximately £145.7 million ($223.2 million).
While thin in terms of lot numbers, Phillips excelled with a bright cast of younger contemporary artists, like Rob Pruitt’s “Untitled” from 2011, a 48 inch square canvas populated by glitter-encrusted panda bears, which sold to a telephone bidder for £104,500 ($159,885), well over its £30-50,000 estimate. Similarly, Kelley Walker’s brick-walled, silkscreen canvas, “Untitled” from 2007, also leaped beyond its £150,000 high estimate, selling to another telephone for £230,500 ($352,665). That strong beat continued as Tauba Auerbach’s abstraction in acrylic on canvas, “Untitled (Fold) XV” from 2010 attracted four bidders and sold to another anonymous telephone for £386,500 ($591,345), outstripping its £300,000 pre-sale estimate.
Phillips secured financial, third party guarantees on a number of the pricier lots including the striking Rudolf Stingel painting “Untitled (Bolega),” a petite self-portrait from 2007 named for the photographer who snapped the original image that sold to another telephone bidder for £782,500 ($1,197,225), near the top of its £600-800,000 estimate, and Anish Kapoor’s “Untitled” from 1996, in midnight blue pigment on aluminum, which sold to another telephone bidder on what appeared to be a single bid for £1,142,500 ($1,748,025), just over the low end of its £1-1.5 million estimate.
In the same guaranteed corral, Andy Warhol’s self-explanatory “Diamond Dust Shoes” from 1980-81 (est. £900,000-1.2 million) sold for the same price as the Kapoor and given the rather shaky state of his gigantic secondary market, the guarantee insurance was probably a pre-requisite for success. Another Warhol, “Pontiac” from 1962, an extinct General Motors’ brand logo in acrylic and pencil on canvas, bereft of a guarantee, failed to sell at an imaginary bid of £1.2 million ($1.83 million) — its pre-sale estimate placed it in the £1,5-2.5 million range.
Back on the straight consignment roster, a mysterious and sexily posed Cindy Sherman “Untitled Film Still #36” from 1979 and just 10 by 8 inches from an edition of 10, sold to another telephone bidder for £302,500 ($462,825), several times its £60-80,000 estimate. The cover lot, Glenn Brown’s Dali-esque, pseudo- appropriation, “Oscillate Wildly (after ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’ 1936 by Salvador Dali)” from 1999 and gigantic at nearly six feet by 13 feet, sold to a telephone bidder for the top lot price of £2,882,500 ($4,410,225) (est. £2.5-3.5 million). Less successful was the second-tier Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Three Pontificators,” measuring 60 by 60 inches and executed in acrylic and oilstick on canvas from 1984, which sold to the telephone for a seemingly cheap £2,210,500 ($3,382,065), well under its £2.5-4.5 million pre-sale estimate.
After the sale, Michael McGinnis, Phillips’ CEO and worldwide contemporary head, explained, “the reserve (the minimum and secret price the seller sets for the work to be sold) was dropped dramatically and we basically took into account the lack of success of Basquiat during the week. There’s a price resistance in Basquiat in general,” added McGinnis, qualifying his remarks to works not considered top-class and later than the artist’s prime 1982 paintings. “It was a recalibration of the Basquiat market, to a degree.”
As one might despair of an evening dominated 100 percent by telephone bids, there was a bit of action in the sleek salesroom, as seasoned Paris art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac nabbed an early Antony Gormley sculpture, “Sick” from 1987-89, a unique work in lead, fiberglass, plaster, air” for £194,500 ($297,585) (est. £150-200,000).
“I’m happy to have it for my private collection but it’s a sad affair here,” the dealer said when buttonholed on his way out of the salesroom, “because it’s a small sale and if you don’t have one or two things you’re interested in, you wouldn’t bother to come.”
There was a surge of bidding for market rising Columbian artist Oscar Murillo as “Untitled” from 2011, a bravura oil, paper, and debris on canvas abstract painting scaled at six feet by five and a half feet sold for multiples of its high estimate, making £146,500 ($224,145) (est. £20-30,000). The buyer, who declined to give her full name but said it was “Antonella F,” is a young Columbian collector who lives some of the time in Miami and has a private art fund for young artists. “We learned about Murillo at Art Basel last month.” (Another painting by the 27 year old artist sold for a record £253,875 at Christie's day sale on Wednesday; it also came with a £20-30,000 estimate.)
The penultimate lot of the brief evening sale, Rashid Johnson’s diamond-shaped “Cosmic Slop” from 2008, comprised of black soap and microcrystalline wax on board. It sold for £86,500 ($132,345) (est. £60-80,000) to Elena Bondesani, an Italian art advisor from Reggio Emilia. “This is the first work of his for my client,” said Bondesani. “You know it’s really difficult to get one.”
Asked about the evening performance, McGinnis said: “We had a manageable sized sale to encourage the market at the end of a long season and it worked.”