Phillips netted $111.2 million in its only evening auction during the fall sales in New York, securing a total just above the pre-sale low estimate of $100 million, though short of the $144 million high estimate. With a well-manicured selection of just 37 lots, the sale successfully sold 34 of them, earning Phillips a sell-through rate of 92 percent.
Some of the blockbuster lots that Phillips may have hoped would climb sky-high stalled after initial bidding and sold for near their low estimates. But there is good news to come from the sale, especially during a season where totals have been down due to a contracting market and, perhaps, the shock of last week’s election: there was a hitherto unseen display of brawn here on Park Avenue. The total low estimate was nearly $40 million higher than it was at for this sale a year ago, at a time when the market has other houses lowering their sales expectations.
The gambit seems to have basically paid off, as the $111.2 million total achieved a 66 percent increase over last year. The contemporary sale at Christie’s on Tuesday, by way of comparison, netted a total that was a 16 percent drop from the year before.
“It’s a rise, and it’s a rise in a market that’s shrunk overall,” Ed Dolman, the chairman and CEO of Phillips, told me after the sale. “These are pictures that you may very well have expected to see at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and now we’re having them.”
Indeed, the house is in the middle of a rush to guns in the ongoing auction world arms race. It’s poached a number of bigwigs from its chief competitors, including Cheyenne Westphal, the incoming Phillips chairman who was coaxed into coming from Sotheby’s during that house’s hemorrhaging of senior staff. She starts work in February.
The first order of business is to secure world-class consignments in a market where collectors are choosing not to sell, and Phillips did as much when putting together this sale, securing Gerhard Richter’s Dϋsenjäger (1953), a realistic painting of an airplane, from tech billionaire Paul Allen. The lot was estimated to sell for $25 million to $35 million and was backed by an irrevocable bid, ensuring the lot got sold (the sale had nine third-party guarantees and three in-house guarantees). It went for $25.5 million to a bidder on the phone with contemporary specialist Kevie Yang, making it, so far, the most expensive Richter of the 18 up for auction this week. Abstraktes Bild (809-2), 1994, which was consigned by Eric Clapton, sold for $22.1 million last night at Christie’s. (We’ll continue to follow the Richter story: there are two Richters from the Steven and Ann Ames collection expected to sell for $20 million to $30 million tomorrow night at Sotheby’s.)
The bidding on Dϋsenjäger was quick and on the telephone, a fate for many a lot here tonight. Among the other big lots, Clyfford Still’s abstract untitled painting from 1948–49, estimated to sell for $12 million to $18 million, quickly went from the opening bid of $8.5 million to $12 million courtesy of a bidder on the phone with senior specialist Scott Nussbaum (who was recently poached from Sotheby’s), and hammered at that price when no more bidding materialized. The total was $13.7 million with fees.
Later in the sale, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in Mirror (1994), which had a low estimate of $20 million, hammered for just below that, at $19 million. It sold to the buyer on the phone with Phillips specialist Svetlana Marich, and when fees were added the total price came in a hair over the low barrier at $21.5 million.
Those were the night’s only eight-figure lots, and all three barely hit their low estimates—and yet, they all sold for more than last year’s top lot at Phillips, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXVIII (1977), which went for $11.4 million. Progress!
Tonight Phillips also set two artist records, and they were both for female Latin American artists. Carmen Herrera’s Cerulean (1965) went for $970,000, and an untitled Mira Schendel from 1985–86 went—coincidentally—also for $970,000.
When the bidding did create a stir in the room, the excitement levels rose higher than they usually would at an early evening sale at Phillips (this sale had been held on Sundays in recent seasons, but the house decided to move it to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, to avoid direct conflict with sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s). Keith Haring’s Snake and Man; Dogs and Men (1983) saw paddles flying all over the room, eventually getting snagged by a man in a T-shirt in the back row. More entertaining were the proceedings during the sale of George Condo’s large red painting Noble Woman (2009), which saw specialist Rebekah Bowling duking it out with a woman in the back, until Bowling hit $775,000 and the woman bidding in the room stalled. And then, suddenly, from the other side of the salesroom, French collector and dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski snapped his fingers loudly and started waving his hands, erupting with a bid for $800,000. When Bowling responded by announcing her client would see him that and raise him to $825,000, he muttered a series of profanities under his breath before shouting, “Thirty.”
“What was that?” responded the night’s gavel-wielder, evening sale head Henry Highley.
“I said, thir-teeee. Three-zero,” Sayegh-Belchatowski said in French-accented English.
“Ah, $830,000,” Highley responded. “Small jump.”
And, perhaps just washing her hands of the situation, Bowling declined to engage, and dropped out, giving the painting to Sayegh-Belchatowski.
“It’s a $5 million painting in two years,” the collector told me after the sale. “It’s fantastic. I get lucky to find one like these. And the red—mwah!”
It seems that, now that Phillips is an auction house that can top $100 million for an evening sale, it’s that kind of positive energy that pervaded the room after the last hammer. And after it all ended, Dolman went down to have a celebratory cigarette with chairman Hugues Joffre.
“You know, I spent 30 years as the CEO of Christie’s, and I think, with Phillips, we’re now a serious competitor,” Dolman said. “And there’s nothing wrong with having three major houses.”
The fall sales in New York conclude with the postwar and contemporary evening auction tomorrow night at Sotheby’s.
Update 11/16/2016, 11:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated Phillips's result in this sale compared to the same sale last year. The post has been updated to reflect this.