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Cutting-Edge Work Fails to Enliven Phillips Contemporary Sale

Phillips de Pury & Company’s part-one sale of contemporary art on Nov. 13 took in $9.6 million, the lowest total for such an auction at Phillips since the $8.3 million November 2001 sale, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

NEW YORK—Phillips de Pury & Company’s part-one sale of contemporary art on Nov. 13 took in $9.6 million, the lowest total for such an auction at Phillips since the $8.3 million November 2001 sale, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The total result fell far below the estimate of $23 million/32 million, and only 30, or 59 percent, of the 51 lots were sold. By value, the sell-through rate was an even lower 49 percent.

Damien Hirst’s 8-by-20-foot spin painting with four skulls, Beautiful Artemis . . . , 2007, was expected to be one of the star lots, and was estimated at $3 million/4 million on the basis of results for similar-size paintings at the single-artist “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale at Sotheby’s in London in September (ANL, 9/30/08). Not only had the venue and context for the piece changed, however, but the whole economic environment as well, and the lot was bought in. Hirst later told the The Independent that the work, which had been exhibited in his Levi Strauss promotional show at the Gagosian Gallery in late 2007 (ANL, 9/18/07), had been bought for half the estimated price last year.

Another Hirst, the large spot painting 4-Fluoro-3-Nitrotoluene, 2006, was also bought in (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million). Some of the Hirst magic was still alive, how­ever, when a painted skull sculpture, Happy Head No. 7, 2007, came up for bid (estimate: $70,000/90,000). It was the only lot whose hammer price ($95,000) exceeded estimates. With premium, it took $116,500, slightly less than the price for a similar work in Sotheby’s Hirst sale.

Two top-estimated paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat also failed to find buyers, and with the withdrawal of four lots—including Anselm Kiefer’s large painting Dein Hausritt die Finstere Welle, 2005 (estimate: $1.2 million/1.6 million)—Donald Judd’s Untitled (77/23–Bernstein), 1977, became the only lot to break the $1 million barrier. The stack sculpture sold for $3.2 million, below its estimate of $4 million/6 million.

Among the works that yielded prices within or above estimate were Terence Koh’s sculpture The Road to the Winterland of My Discontent . . . , 2007, which sold to New York collector Henry Buhl for $122,500 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); Matthew Barney’s gelatin silver print Cremaster 3: Imperial Demolition, 2002, which sold for $86,500 to dealer Christophe Van de Weghe (estimate: $50,000/70,000); John McCracken’s ­three-dimensional monochrome Bit, 2002, which sold to dealer David Zwirner for $43,750 (estimate: $30,000/50,000); and Wade Guyton’s Untitled, 2007, an inkjet print on linen of a broken “X,” which fetched a record $134,500 from Lawrence Luhring, co-owner of Luhring Augustine, New York (estimate: $90,000/120,000). Records were also set for works by Rachel Harrison ($62,500) and Isa Genzken ($314,500), although both prices fell below estimate.

Arguably, Phillips’s sale was likely to be more profitable than Sotheby’s or Christie’s main sales because it included only one guaranteed lot—The Fall, 2005, a neon sculpture by Kendell Geers—and that was sold, albeit under the estimate of $60,000/80,000, for $56,250. After the sale, Phillips worldwide director of contemporary art Michael McGinnis told reporters that he thought estimates and reserves might be reduced next time around by as much as 40 to 50 percent.

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