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Russian Art Roars at Phillips Contemporary Sale

On the evening of Feb. 28, Phillips de Pury & Company held two auctions that raised a combined total of £27.9 million ($55.2 million)—Phillips’ record high for an evening sale in London—and close to its best-ever sales figures in New York.

LONDON—On the evening of Feb. 28, Phillips de Pury & Company held two auctions that raised a combined total of £27.9 million ($55.2 million)—Phillips’ record high for an evening sale in London—and close to its best-ever sales figures in New York.

The evening began with the auction of 39 Russian contemporary works, covering the decades from the 1960s to ’90s, which were offered by an anonymous foundation. By sale’s end, 34 lots (87 percent) had won a total of £6.5 million ($12.9 million), against a presale estimate of £2.8/4 million. The collection, which was being sold to raise money for children with AIDS, was guaranteed, but the total must have exceeded the sum involved quite comfortably.

The top lot, Ilya Kabakov’s painting Beetle, 1982, fetched a record £2.9 million, or $5.7 million (estimate: £1.2/1.8 million), from Christie’s head of contemporary art in London, Pilar Ordovas, taking bids on her cellphone.

Also breaking records among the top lots was Erik Bulatov’s depiction of a Communist slogan, Glory to the CPSU, 1975, which fell to a Russian- speaking member of Phillips’ staff, bidding on the phone, for £1.1 million, or $2.2 million (estimate: £500,000/700,000). Oleg Vassiliev’s oil-on-canvas Variations on the Theme of the Ogonyok Magazine Cover, 1980, tripled estimates to sell for a record £356,500 ($705,700) to the same Phillips staffer using a different paddle number, against bidding from Russian dealer Elena Kuprina in the room.

A consistent bidder in the room was Art Plus, the investment company recently formed by dealers Micky and Serge Tiroche, based in London and Israel, respectively. Art Plus gave a record £38,900, or $77,000 (estimate: £8,000/12,000), for Pyotr Belenok’s Big Moon, 1985, as well as an above-estimate £48,500, or $96,000 (estimate: £25,000/35,000), for Natalya Nesterova’s Endless Beach, 1989.

Altogether, Phillips claimed nine record prices—two for works by artists with no previous auction sales (Yuri Albert and Sergei Volkov). This is a young market, and Phillips is clearly setting the pace in London—challenged by Sotheby’s, which was to hold its second contemporary Russian art sale in mid-March, and by MacDougall’s, the specialist Russian-art auctioneer that opened a selling exhibition of “Russian Underground” art in its London galleries to coincide with the two auctions.

Subdued Bidding Marks Phillips Sale

Phillips’ main evening sale was less dynamic than Sotheby’s or even its own Russian sale, realizing £21.4 million ($56.2 million) with commissions, only a fraction above its low presale estimate of £20 million without commissions. Although the sold percentage was reasonable at 80 percent, or 89 of 111 lots offered, eight of the top 20 estimated lots went unsold.

The top lots that did sell were mostly guaranteed, reflecting Phillips’ new policy toward securing business this way. Richard Prince’s Surfing Nurse, 2003, consigned by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, won £2.1 million, or $4.3 million (estimate: £1.5/2 million), from Gagosian Gallery’s Stefan Ratibor.

A very large Damien Hirst spot painting, which previously sold in 2005 for £523,000, fell to Philippe Ségalot for £1.75 million or $3.5 million (estimate: £1.5/2.5 million). And Jeff Koons’ glass sculpture Violet-Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991, went to Ratibor for £1.25 million, or $2.5 million (estimate: £800,000/1.2 million). Altogether, 18 works were guaranteed, with a combined low estimate of £9 million; they realized a total, with commission, of £9.9 million or $19.6 million.

Particularly strong prices were achieved for John Armleder, whose Untitled (Mirror Glass), 1992, sold to a phone bidder for a record £94,100, or $186,270 (estimate: £15,000/20,000); and for Terence Koh, whose bronze sculpture The Camel was God, the Camel was Shot, 2007, was acquired by Charles Saatchi for £72,500, or $143,513 (estimate: £30,000/50,000).

Saatchi himself was the biggest consignor to the sale with around 20 lots, the majority of which were sold. One of his paintings, Egyptian Room, 2001, by Matthias Weischer, made a record £288,500, or $571,100 (estimate: £150,000/200,000). Saatchi’s top-selling lot was Cecily Brown’s Teenage Wildlife, 2003; originally won for about $60,000, it made £636,500, or $1.3 million (estimate: £300,000/400,000).

Again, a most active buyer was Art Plus, which secured works by Mimmo Paladino (£98,900, or $195,800); Subodh Gupta (£102,500, or $202,900); Yan Pei Ming (£42,500, or $84,125); Zeng Hao (£38,900, or $77,900); and Wilhelm Sasnal (£58,100, or $115,000), from the Saatchi collection.

Other buyers in the room included dealer Stellan Holm, who snagged Prince’s Untitled (Protest Painting), 1990, for £120,500, or $238,529 (estimate: £100,000/150,000); White Cube, which bought Gavin Turk’s Cave from the Saatchi collection for £60,500 ($119,800); Alberto Mugrabi, who bought both Andy Warhol’s 1967 Portrait of Sidney Janis for £1 million, or $2 million (estimate: £1/1.5 million), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Orange, 1988, for £216,500, or $428,560 (estimate: £200,000/300,000); and Portuguese dealer Victor Pires-Vieira, who acquired Haim Steinbach’s Pink Accent, 1987, for £72,500, or $143,500 (estimate: £20,000/30,000).

After the auction, department head Michael McGinnis said it had made “pretty much what we had expected, in spite of the failure of some of the big-ticket lots.” Not many fireworks, maybe, but pretty solid for a middle-market sale.

Among the unsold works was a guaranteed Warhol 1986 Camouflage painting at £800,000/1.2 million, a 1965 Willem de Kooning oil on paper at the same estimate, and a guaranteed 1990 Christopher Wool pattern painting at £300,000/400,000. Chinese paintings by two normally hot artists—Wang Guangyi (estimate: £100,000/150,000) and Zeng Fanzhi (estimate: £100,000/150,000)—also went unsold.

A private trader in the room suggested it might be the wrong time of night to attract bidding from Asian telephone buyers.

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