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    Contemporary Auctions Open On a Cautious Note

    Phillips de Pury & Company got the Frieze week auctions off to a slightly nervous start on Oct. 12 with a short, 35-lot sale in which 23 or 65.7 percent of lots were sold for £8.2 million ($12.9 million).

    LONDON—Phillips de Pury & Company got the Frieze week auctions off to a slightly nervous start on Oct. 12 with a short, 35-lot sale in which 23 or 65.7 percent of lots were sold for £8.2 million ($12.9 million). It was an improvement on last October’s £6.6 million ($10.6 million) sale, but fell short of the £10.4 million/14.4 million estimate. (Prices realised include buyers premium, estimates exclude the premium.)

    The main unsold work was an Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaboration, Thin Lips, 1984–85, which was estimated at £700,000/1 million, and bore the inscription “Outlay $695.3, Revenue $650.3, Deficit $45.0,” which was perhaps a bit too close to home, given the current economic climate, to attract a buyer. The only work to make seven figures was Jeff Koons’s steel and aluminium “Popeye” series sculpture, Seal Walrus Trashcans, 2003–9, but that work fell below its £2 million/3 million estimate selling on a single bid of £1.85 million to garner £2.1 million ($3.3 million) including buyers premium.

    George Condo has been on a roll, and his work is prominent in these auctions as well as at the Frieze Art Fair, with his major New Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective opening at the Hayward Gallery in London next week. But two of his works at Phillips, Cave Painting, 2008 (estimate: £300,000/500,000), and a small set of paintings, The Departure and The Arrival, 2004 (estimate: £300,000/400,000), were overpriced, observers said, and did not sell.

    Several Russians were in attendance, including Anton Belov, director of the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, and Leonid Friedland, head of the Mercury Group which controls Phillips, who was making a rare appearance at auction. Seated in the audience close to Phillips’s Moscow-based specialist, Svetlana Marich, Friedland was making signs to Marich as a large butterfly painting by Damien Hirst, Observation – The Crown of Justice, 2006, was hammered down to a bid from Marich for £660,000 ($1 million), or £780,450 ($1.2 million) with premium, against an estimate of £700,000/1 million. The painting was one of nine works in the auction that had been guaranteed and in which Phillips had an ownership interest. Carrying a combined low estimate of £2.86 million, the nine works sold at hammer prices for a combined £2.63 million ($4.1 million), many on single bids from Phillips staffers presumably, therefore, for the owners. So whether there was any profit for Phillips is doubtful, observers said.

    Other works guaranteed in this way were: two works by Anselm Kiefer, Die Argonauten, 2008, estimated at £500,000/700,000, and Sternenfall, 2007, estimated at £90,000/120,000, which sold for £601,250 ($944,564) and £109,250 ($170,700), respectively, to the same phone bidder; and two paintings by Cecily Brown titled Park, 2004, estimated at £400,000/600,000, and The Torment of St. Anthony, 2010, estimated at £250,000/350,000, which sold to different phone bidders for £421,250 ($661,780) and £265,250 ($416,708), respectively.

    The only guaranteed work to attract significant bidding was Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Toxic Schizophrenia, 1997, which sold for £229,250 ($361,257) against an estimate of £180,000/250,000. The price, however, pales in comparison with the £356,000 ($701,000) set at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for a work from this edition.

    Friedland was also posed close to Marich, as if supervising or at least closely monitoring the action, during the bidding for a rare, circular spot painting by Hirst, 5-Aminouracil, 2007, which she bought for a client. Before bidding, she appeared to instruct a Phillips colleague to make one bid first before making her winning bid of £580,000 (£690,850 or $1.1 million including commission) against an estimate of £600,000/800,000. Friedland then spoke to her, and afterwards circled the room to speak to the head of contemporary art at Phillips, Michael McGinnis. It was an unusual performance for which no explanation was readily available, though McGinnis did confirm that Marich bought the two Hirsts for different buyers.

    The sale had its moments, though. The first lot, Walead Beshty’s 20 Inch Copper…, doubled estimates to fetch a record £46,850 ($73,601). Jacob Kassay, for whom the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London had just opened an exhibition, saw his price momentum continue as several bidders, including New York dealer John van Doren, sent his silver monochrome, Untitled 2010, well above its £50,000/70,000 estimate, to sell on the phone for £163,250 ($255,070), and Tauba Auerbach’s colourful, blurry abstract, CMY 5, 2008, sold for a record £49,250 ($76,950) against an estimate of £15,000/20,000.

    Only one lot had been consigned to this sale by Charles Saatchi: a painting by Barnaby Furnas titled Flood (Red Sea), 2006, which sold for £169,250 ($264,440) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000.

    With all of the lots selling to phone bids, there were only a few underbidders in the room. These included Belgian private equity and real estate investor, Mark Vanmoerkerke, who bid up Steven Parrino’s four-part Creeping Eye, 1993, as it sold for £361,250 ($564,424) compared with an estimate of £300,000/500,000, and French dealer, and longtime Maurizio Cattelan supporter, Emmanuel Perrotin, who bid up on Cattelan’s ten taxidermised pigeons, Turisti, 1997, which sold for £385,250 ($605,230) compared with an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

    With the number of unsold works and the unconvincing performance of the guaranteed lots, the sale will have done little to settle confidence at the outset of this series. McGinnis thought that perhaps it was a reaction to the amount of material that is on the market during Frieze week.

    Seven contemporary art auctions, including Bonhams entering the fray, and two for 20th-century Italian art, are estimated to fetch between £110 million/157 million—the highest for an October sale since £174 million ($348 million) was realized in 2007.