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Buyers Resist High-Priced Contemporary Works at Phillips

After the success of Christie’s auction, Phillips de Pury & Company’s evening sale of contemporary art on May 14 was a bit of an anticlimax.

LONDON—After the success of Christie’s auction, Phillips de Pury & Company’s evening sale of contemporary art on May 14 was a bit of an anticlimax.

A less-than-crowded room with many front-row seats left vacant watched as chairman and auctioneer Simon de Pury worked his way through 43 lots in rapid time, selling 31, or 73 percent. He found little interest in the higher-value lots, however, which resulted in a sold-by-value rate of just 43 percent. The auction brought in a total of $7.7 million against an estimate of $12 million/17 million.

Among the successes was Zeng Fanzhi’s painting Little Boy, 2006, from the collection of Charles Saatchi, which sold to a phone bidder for $446,500 (estimate: $250,000/300,000). Sherrie Levine’s Duchampian Fountain (Buddha), 1996, sold for $446,500, above the $150,000/200,000 estimate, to a phone bidder against competition from private dealer Jennifer Vorbach. Another example from this edition sold for $713,000 at Christie’s in New York a year ago. James Rosen­quist’s Untitled #1 (Neiman Marcus), 2002, was sold to art adviser Kim Heirston for $422,500 (estimate: $250,000/350,000), and Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (White Butterfly, Blue MG), 2001, sold to his Los Angeles dealers, Blum & Poe, for $386,500 (estimate: $200,000/300,000).

Chief among the unsold lots was Robert Gober’s nearly 7-foot-tall version of a Farina cereal box, Untitled, 1993–94 (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million). Phillips has had success with the artist’s work in the past: In its contemporary sale in May of last year, Gober’s leg sculpture Untitled, 1990, sold for a record $3.6 million on an estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million. This time, the only artist record achieved was for the estimate.

The other major failures were Anish Kapoor’s gray painted-aluminum disk Untitled, 2005 (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), and Yue Minjun’s Backyard Garden, 2005, from the Saatchi Collection, which received no bids with an estimate of $500,000/600,000.

Even the highest-selling lots were sold at hammer prices below their estimates. These included the top lot, Philip Guston’s Anxiety, 1975, which was estimated at $1 million/1.5 million and sold on a $900,000 winning bid ($1.08 million with premium) to an unidentified private buyer at the back of the room, and Cecily Brown’s Suddenly Last Summer, 1999, which sold to a phone bidder for $550,000 ($662,500 with premium) on an estimate of $600,000/800,000.

The only record price of note was for Aaron Young’s burnt-rubber and acrylic triptych Burn Out (California Is a Garden of Eden, A Paradise for You and Me, But Believe or Not), 2008, which sold to London dealer Simon Lee for $60,000 (estimate: $35,000/45,000).

Speaking after the sale, Michael McGinnis, worldwide director of contemporary art at Phillips, said that in many cases “we had buyers, but they weren’t ready to meet the seller’s requirements.” The results were another indication that in the future estimates will have to be more realistic.

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