Earlier tonight Phillips ended the week of contemporary art auctions in New York with a small sale that saw new records for Danh Vo, Tauba Auerbach and Rashid Johnson but brought in just $51.96 million with premium, below the evening’s low estimate of $45.76 million without premium, and significantly lower than its high estimate of $67.79 million, also without premium. Of the 47 lots on offer, 39 found buyers, for a healthy sell-through rate of 83 percent.
The sale, led by the lively auctioneer Alexander Gilkes, saw healthy bidding on a number of lots, though the top two of the evening, Robert Ryman’s Hour (2001), which sold for $5.2 million, and Willem de Kooning’s swooshy Untitled XVIII (1984), which sold for $4.8 million, each sold with just one bid to phone bidders in a matter of one minute (the de Kooning presumably going to a Spanish-speaking buyer since Gilkes, the recent subject of a jabbing New York Times Style section profile, said “Buenos Dias” after noting his paddle number).
The liveliest lot of the evening by far was the fifth-highest-selling lot of the evening, a Frank Stella work of rainbow concentric squares from 1966 that had eight bidders, four minutes of bidding (lengthy for the quick sale), and eventually hammered for $3.4 million, almost double its high estimate. Stella also factored into another surprise for the evening, a hotly contested work by the artist known as Sturtevant, who copies works by other artists. That work was a Stella copy and hammered for three times its high estimate at $460,000 after a protracted late sale fight by five bidders. (Sturtevant fared well at Christie’s Wednesday night, too, where the artist’s Roy Lichtenstein double sold for $3.4 million.)
Phillips has come to be known as a place where younger artists subject to market speculation achieve record prices, but tonight was more notable for its failures in that department. Works by Wade Guyton, Nate Lowman, and Lucien Smith failed to find buyers while other works by such artists sold for sums that, while large, are now unremarkable thanks to their inclusion in sales at bigger houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s (usually during day sales). Among the sales at Phillips were an Oscar Murillo that went for $245,000, a Christian Rosa for $161,000, a David Ostrowski for $118,750, and an Alex Israel for $341,000. Sad to say that in this economy a Wade Guyton selling for $4.6 million is an average performance.
Even some artist records did not shatter expectations. Rashid Johnson’s $197,000 achieved this evening only beat his previous record, achieved in 2013, by a mere $2,154, according to Artnet. But Danh Vo fared better. His copper statue We the People (detail) (2011), which sold for $629,000 to Philippe Ségalot, beat his previous record, also from London, by around $100,000. And Tauba Auerbach’s Untitled (Fold) (2010), sold for $2.29 million, beating her previous record, achieved last month in London, by half a million dollars.
Some 16 works carried a form of guarantee, but after the sale Phillips’ new chairman Ed Dolman said that the house had been “relatively cautious” with guarantees.
“The idea of taking big bets and spending lots of money for a relatively smaller market share isn’t very sensible,” he said. “We’re not involved in the battle between Christie’s and Sotheby’s for market share. And frankly I think there were some fairly aggressive guarantees out there in the market this season.”
It was a night where people got what they wanted at a fair price. Doris Ammann, brother of the collector and dealer Thomas Ammann, bought a dusking buildingscape by Martin Kippenberger from 1983 for $2.3 million, because it had been previously owned by her brother. “It’s like a horse,” said a man accompanying the quiet Ms. Ammann after the sale, “You send it out and then it comes back. This is back in the stable.”
No hype or sales pitch can top that, though not for lack of trying. Reproduced below in full is what Mr. Gilkes told the nearly empty room at the top of the last lot of the evening, a charitable project called Treasure of Lima: A Buried Exhibition to benefit the Pelagic Research and Conservation Project for Isla del Coco.
“And finally ladies and gentlemen, the last lot of the evening is a particularly special lot. This lot, commissioned by Francesca von Habsburg, known for her ambitious art productions. This is a lot that should appeal to the adventurous and the treasure hunters amongst you. This is a lot unlike any other. You as the winning bidder will be the owner of a beautiful GPS coordinate map that will lead you to a hidden treasure encased in a vacuum seal which will contain 40 extraordinary artists’ [work] ranging from Marina Abramovic, Olafur Eliasson, Ed Ruscha, Los Carpinteros, and so on and so forth. True bounty for the true bounty hunter. This, ladies and gentleman, is something for those who, perhaps, have an affinity for boats. The island is 550 kilometers off Costa Rica and it is the island that inspired Robert Lewis Stevenson’s great book. And so, ladies and gentlemen, with that in mind, we look for adventurous bids to get us going now.”
The lot hammered at its low estimate.