On the night of New York’s first snowfall of the season, Phillips racked up a tally of $88.5 million in its 20th century and contemporary art evening auction. Though 41 lots had been listed for the evening, three were withdrawn prior to the sale and six failed to find buyers, yielding an 82 percent sell-through rate by lot.
But despite the house’s sale of Joan Miró’s Femme dans la nuit (1945) for $22.6 million, above its $18 million high estimate, the night’s $88.5 million total fell below both its estimate of $100 million to $142 million (which is calculated before buyer’s premiums) and the $113.9 million the house brought in at the same sale last year.
The shortfall could be attributed, in large part, to passes on two of the evening’s most significant lots, by Alberto Burri and Jackson Pollock.
Burri’s Grande legno e rosso (1957–59) had carried an estimate of $10 million to $15 million, and the Pollock had an on-request estimate in the realm of $18 million.
Titled Number 16 but more colloquially known as “The Rockefeller Pollock,” the 1950 drip painting was acquired by Nelson Rockefeller two years after its creation, for $306. Before coming to auction, it had been on display at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, which deaccessioned it last spring in the hopes of raising funds to bolster its operations.
All reported results include the hammer price plus the house’s buyer’s premium, which Phillips calculated at 25 percent of the hammer up to and including $300,000, 20 percent from that up to $4 million, and then 12.5 percent beyond that price.
In a year that has been remarkable for living female artists (see Jenny Saville’s record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s in London), Amy Sillman and Carmen Herrera made waves. Coming to the block after a few tepid lots, Sillman’s colorful abstraction U (2008) energized the room when it sold for $855,000 (est. $300,000–$400,000), a new record for the painter. And mirroring an event that has occurred at the past three November contemporary sales at Phillips (as Marion Maneker has pointed out), Herrera’s auction record was broken once more when, to a round of applause, her Blanco Y Verde (1966) sold for $2.7 million (est. $1 million–$1.5 million).
Kerry James Marshall, whose auction market has taken off recently, had two pieces in the sale. One, Terra Incognita, an expressionist work from 1991, sold for $2.78 million (est. $2.5 million–$3.5 million). But the other, We Mourn Our Loss #1 (1997), which memorializes the slain leaders Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy, passed after failing to find a buyer; it had been estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.
Bruce Nauman, who currently has a doubleheader of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York, also had two pieces on offer, both relating to human figures partaking in colorful antics. Both sold. First was a drawing, Double Slap in the Face (1985), which went for $435,000 (est. $400,000–$600,000). Then came the higher-billed neon work Masturbating Man (1985), which sold for $3 million (est. $2.5 million–$3.5 million).
Andy Warhol’s Gun (1981-1982) sold for a solid $9.54 million against an estimate of $7 million to $10 million, and Mark Rothko’s Black Blue Painting (1968) went for $4.2 million, besting its $3.5 million high estimate with the premium.
Early in the evening, the sale’s second lot, a Fat Albert riff by KAWS—Untitled (Fatal Group), from 2004—more than tripled its high estimate, with a sale price of $3.5 million (est. $700,000–$900,000), setting a new record for the artist. Another artist record fell when Henri Laurens’s sculpture of an abstracted female figure, La Lune (1946), went for $2.2 million (est. $1.5 million–$2 million).
A Jean-Michel Basquiat painting with a large red face from 1982 underperformed with an $8.98 million sale on an estimate of $9 million to $12 million.
Later in the sale, Ed Clark’s The Dome (1994) sold for $100,000, under its $120,000–$180,000 estimate, despite having had a critically lauded survey at Mnuchin Gallery earlier this year. And a painting by market favorite Christopher Wool, estimated at $4 million to $6 million, went unsold.
But a Giorgio Morandi still life—Natura Morta (1930)—soared to $1.94 million (est. $600,000-$800,000), and Mark Rothko’s 1968 Black Blue Painting notched $4.22 million (est. $2.5 million–$3.5 million). Near the end, David Hammons’s African American Flag (1990) sold for $1.82 million (est. $1.5 million–$2 million).
As the auction neared its conclusion, many in the crowd began to make their way out into the snowstorm, en route to Christie’s for its sale of contemporary art.
In a statement issued after the sale, Jean-Paul Engelen and Robert Manley, worldwide co-heads of 20th century and contemporary art, recounted the evening’s highlights, and said, “We look forward to our next series of auctions in Hong Kong later this month.”