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Phillips Contemporary Auction Misses Mark as Top Lots Fail to Sell

Like Christie’s, Phillips, de Pury & Company had trouble selling its higher-estimated lots in its part-one evening sale of contemporary art on Feb. 12.

LONDON—Like Christie’s, Phillips, de Pury & Company had trouble selling its higher-estimated lots in its part-one evening sale of contemporary art on Feb. 12. Of the 53 lots offered, 35, or 66 percent, were sold, but by value the sell-through rate was a lower 59 percent. The sale total of £4.2 million ($6 million) fell well short of the estimate of £6.8 million/9.3 million ($9.7 million/13.2 million), and was the lowest for a part-one sale by Phillips in London since the company opened for business here in late 2006.

The main unsold work was Jeff Koons’s basketball and soccer ball installation piece, Encased–Five Rows…, 1983–93 (estimate: £1.8 million/2.2 million), which was last sold at auction in 2004 for $434,000 to New York collector and real estate developer Aby Rosen. (Rosen had since resold the work, reportedly to a Korean buyer.) Other significant buy-ins were Keith Haring’s tall yellow sculpture Julia, 1987 (estimate: £350,000/450,000), British graffiti artist Banksy’s Happy Chopper, 2005 (estimate: £200,000/300,000), and Tracey Emin’s mixed-media installation featuring a four-poster bed, To Meet My Past, 2002 (estimate: £200,000/300,000).

Although not designated as such in the catalogue, the Emin bed was one of several works consigned by the Saatchi Collection, which produced some top lots and record prices. These included the top lot, Martin Kippenberger’s painting Portrait of Paul Schreber (designed by himself), 1994, which last sold at auction in 2000 for $171,000, and which now brought £432,000 ($629,000)—on a hammer basis, missing its estimate of £400,000/600,000. Also among the top ten lots were Johannes Kahrs’s diptych of Mick Jagger in a recording studio, La Révolution Permanente, 2000, which sold for a record £204,000 ($289,680) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000, and Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Pink Butterfly MO2G), 2002, which was snapped up by Stefan Ratibor of the Gagosian Gallery for £180,000 ($256,320), below the £200,000/300,000 estimate. Until recently, similar works by Grotjahn had been fetching prices as high as $600,000 at auction.

Other works from the Saatchi collection to sell well were Dan Colen’s candle painting, Untitled (going, going, go…), 2005, which was bought by New York dealer Stellan Holm for a record £92,400 ($131,208) against an estimate of £25,000/35,000, and Tal R’s collage Tomland, 2003–4, which sold for a record £81,600 ($115,900) on an estimate of £60,000/80,000. Jonathan Meese’s triptych The Temptation of the State of the Blessed Ones in Archland, 2003, however, went unsold, but then returned to the rostrum, presumably on instructions from Saatchi, to sell well below the £150,000/200,000 estimate for £120,000 ($170,400).

Buyers Take Advantage of Falling Prices

Work by some previously higher-selling artists experienced a downturn. Sean Scully’s Untitled (7.6.91), 1991, had sold at Sotheby’s in London in May 2007 for £204,000 ($406,000) to an Asian dealer, but now fetched £174,000 ($250,000) on an estimate of £120,000/180,000—an even greater fall in dollars because of currency fluctuations. Similarly, a work comprising four photographs by Richard Prince, Untitled (Four Women with Hats), 1980, sold for £324,000 ($465,000) against an estimate of £200,000/300,000, in comparison with another example from the same edition, which was sold in New York last May for $769,000.

Several works were consigned by collector Francesca Thyssen, and the £540,460 ($767,453) in proceeds donated for investment in contemporary art in Iceland. Conservative estimates created strong competition for Jenny Holzer’s LED signboard with her signature truisms, Untitled, C-11…, 1990, which fetched £96,000 ($136,320) on an estimate of £25,000/35,000; Robert Longo’s wave drawing Untitled (Typhoon Reversed…), 2000, which fetched £102,000 ($144,840) on an estimate of £60,000/80,000; and Richard Long’s stone circle, Winter Solstice Circle, 2002, which fetched £90,000 ($127,800) against an estimate of £50,000/70,000.

The sale included a smattering of Indian, Chinese and African art. Zeng Fanzhi finished a week of strong sales for his work when Huang Jiguang, 2006, sold for £360,000 ($511,200) on an estimate of £200,000/250,000, but works by highly rated Chinese artists Wang Guangyi and Zhang Huan did not sell.

Congress of the Elders, 2006, a wall hanging by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, sold for £192,000 ($276,640), a disappointing price in comparison with other recent sales of his work, and, on a hammer basis, below the £180,000/220,000 estimate. A number of new works by Indian and Pakistani artists shown in the recent exhibition “The Audience and the Eavesdropper” at Phillips in London and New York, either went unsold (such as Rashid Rana’s Dis-Location 3, 2007–8, which failed despite a £80,000/100,000 estimate comparable with recent prices) or sold below estimates, as did Thukral & Tagra’s Weekend Bonanza–3, 2008, which sold for £66,000 ($93,720) on an estimate of £60,000/80,000.

Buying at the evening sale was divided between Europe (37 percent), the United States (27 percent), the U.K. (21 percent) and Asia (6 percent), according to Phillips representatives. Many buyers appeared to be “bargain shopping,” said department head Michael McGinnis.

In its part-two day sale, Phillips followed the trend set by Sotheby’s and Christie’s: a much healthier 79 percent of lots was sold, though 44 or 96 of the lots that sold did so below estimates, leaving a total of £1.6 million ($2.3 million), just on the low end of the £1.6 million/2.4 million estimate. Johannes Wohnseifer’s painting Untitled, 2004, from the Saatchi Collection, for instance, fetched a record £10,625, but at the hammer price the winning bid was below the £10,000/15,000 estimate. By value, the auction was 81 percent sold.

On the plus side, Phillips achieved a 100 percent sell-through rate for a selection of works by Middle Eastern artists, some of which doubled and tripled estimates. Of the 19 records set in the sale, 14 were for lots by artists whose work had not previously been sold at auction.

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