“New Now,” Phillips’ sale geared toward emerging artists, pulled in $2.8 million on afternoon after offering 202 lots, putting it squarely between its low estimate of $2.4 million and its high estimate of $3.5 million. The sell-through rate was a respectable 74 percent by lot. Though that is not spectacular, it’s still a marked improvement from last March’s “New Now” affair, when only 51 percent on the lots found buyers, en route to a total that fell $2 million short of its low estimate.
Highlights, price-wise, came mostly from the works by canonical artists who were scattered about through the show. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets (TWWP) (2006), which went for $225,000, a Lawrence Weiner from the collection of the Finnish economist Pentti Kouri that went for $175,000, and a Giuseppe Penone sculpture, Fingernail and Marble (Unghia e marmo), that went for $150,000.
Of the works by younger artists who led a gold rush just a few years back, Korakrit Arunondchai was one of the few who did not see the erosion of his market—his Untitled (2013) sold for $81,250 to a buyer on the phone with senior specialist Rachel Adler Rosan.
This “New Now” comes at a time when Phillips has been shaking up its top brass in the hopes of casting off its third-place status, perennially the bridesmaid to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. In May, they brought in Sotheby’s worldwide contemporary art chairman Cheyenne Westphal to be the chairman of the house (she will start in 2017, after her non-compete expires) and in July hired Scott Nussbaum, another Sotheby’s vet who worked with Westphal in the contemporary department.
Phillips has had mixed results with its “New Now” sales since introducing it a year ago, with the sales affected by a plummeting market for some of the young artists whose prices skyrocketed just two years ago. An article in Bloomberg yesterday revealed that a Hugh Scott-Douglas in the New Now sale estimated to sell for just $18,000 to $22,000 was purchased in 2014 for $100,000—with the expectation that it would be worth much more than that very soon. But the planned flip clearly went sour, and that work’s owner decided to sell at a big loss because, as he told Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina, “I feel like it can go to zero. It’s like a stock that crashed.”
The drama behind the Hugh Scott-Douglas work’s evaporated value made it, unexpectedly, one of the day’s most anticipated lots (a bit macabre, but true). Instead, the bidding opened at $13,000, and immediately went past the low estimate thanks to an aggressive paddle in the room—the paddle belonging to Matt Bangser, partner at Blum & Poe, the gallery where the Scott-Douglas painting was originally sold, for $25,000. Trying to save face, and avoid a cringe-inducing new result, perhaps? After sparring with associate specialist Sam Mansour on the phone, the work hammered at $24,000, selling to Mansour’s bidder for $30,000 with the buyer’s premium.
Work by other former market darlings saw modest returns. A large work by Christian Rosa that could have easily gone for six figures at his peak—the artist’s auction record that exceeds $200,000—went for just $22,500. Greer Patterson—whose works, a dealer at the sale told me, were selling on the secondary market in March 2014 for well over $100,000—had a piece go for just $7,500. Prices for work by Lucien Smith have slid since one of his so-called “Rain Paintings” sold at auction for $372,120 in 2014, and on Tuesday at Phillips, a similar painting, Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered 3 (2012), hammered at $16,250.
For some, the low prices smelled like deals, especially when a lack of reserve—and high amounts of bidding online and through a partnership with Artsy—let the bidding inch up by increments as low as $50. A Michael Rovnar with a low estimate of $15,000 sold for $2,500, and a Lucie Stahl with a low estimate of $6,000 went for just $563—the price of a power lunch with some wine at one of the fancy Midtown restaurants nearby.
The auction was long, stretching form 11:00 a.m. until nearly 3:00 p.m., and the leisurely paddle-wielders didn’t seem to be much in a buying mood: most of the bidding came from phones, or online. No doubt there will be more fanfare when the contemporary art evening sales arrive in New York in November. Perhaps some want their new, later.