Tonight in Midtown New York, Phillips totaled $131.6 million at its sale of 20th-century and contemporary art, a jump of roughly 15 percent over the $113.9 million it brought at the same auction last May.
Just three of the 36 lots that went up on the block failed to sell, for an impressive sell-through rate of about 92 percent, though three lots were withdrawn before the start of the action: a Sigmar Polke, a David Hammons, and a Zeng Fanzhi. (About a third of the lots—13 out of the 36—carried guarantees either by the house or a third party.)
The top lot of the evening was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flexible (1984), which he painted on a section of picket fence he found outside his New York studio, and posed next to in a number of photographs. The piece was estimated at $20 million to $30 million, which it handily surpassed in steady bidding, selling to a phone bidder for $40 million—$45.3 million, with premium—to applause from the room.
The Basquiat, which was sold by the artist’s estate, accounted for about 34 percent of the evening’s haul, and was followed in a distant second by Robert Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1971), from his “Spanish Elegies” series, which made an $11 million hammer, or $12.7 million with premium. It was being sold by interior designer Holly Hunt. That result was just above its $12 million low estimate but good enough to set a new artist record—one of three set tonight. That result “lifted him onto a new price category,” the house’s chairman, Cheyenne Westphal, said after the sale. (His previous record, set in 2012, was a mere $3.7 million, a paltry sum compared to those of many of his fellow Ab-Exers.)
The other new records were for Pat Steir, whose 12-foot-wide Elective Affinity Waterfall (1992) sold for $2.3 million to a phone bidder handled by Phillips’s Vera Antoshenkova, and Cory Arcangel, who had one of his Photoshop gradient works sell for $399,000, doubling its $200,000 high estimate.
(Unless noted, the premium is 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including $300,000, 20 percent of the hammer price above $300,000 up to and including $4 million, and 12.5 percent of the portion of the hammer price above $4 million.)
The only real rough patch came midway through the sale. “We had a bit of trouble with Germans above $10 million,” as Edward Dolman, the house’s CEO, said after the sale, referring to a Gerhard Richter and a Sigmar Polke that both failed to sell. That was a tough hit for the house, which had hoped to pull in $12 million to $18 million for Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1994) and $12 million to $18 million for Polke’s Stadtbild II (City Painting II), 1968. (The third pass was for Belgian, Luc Tuymans, who had a 2012 work estimated at $400,000 to $600,000.)
One Richter did sell, however: Italienische Landschaft (Italian Landscape), a brooding, foggy view of mountains from 1966 that catapulted its $2 million high estimate to a $4.1 million finish. The piece had last been at auction in October of 2009 at Christie’s in London, where it sold for £505,250 (or about $827,000 at the time)—not a bad performance over about 10 years!
Last night at Sotheby’s, a Kerry James Marshall park scene from 1997 sold for $21.1 million, more than four times the artist’s previous record. Tonight, a more recent piece of a similar subject, Untitled, (Blanket Couple), 2014, finished at a solid but comparatively more modest price, with Robert Manley, the house’s deputy chairman, taking it for $4.34 million against a $3.5 million-to-$5.5 million estimate.
Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac took a swing at Adrian Ghenie’s portrait, Elvis (2009) (Ropac shows Ghenie) but ultimately was the underbidder, with the piece selling to another bidder for $519,000. Next up was Andy Warhol’s Two Marilyns (1962), which was being sold by the artist’s brother, Paul Warhola, and made a squarely within-estimate $3.62 million. Another Warhol, this a 40-inch-square yellow Last Supper (1986), went for $8.75 million against an estimate of $8 million to $12 million.
David Benrimon was among those vying for George Condo’s Red Head (2012), which ended up getting picked up by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Stewart Rahr for $1.82 million. Next up was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled 13 (1977)—Brett Gorvy entered the bidding at around $2 million, but was beaten by a bidder working with Antoshenkova, who ended up winning the piece for $4.16 million, with all fees included.
An Anselm Kiefer being sold without reserve, Laßt 1000 Blumen blühen (Let 1000 Flowers bloom), 1999–2007), began slowly, at half its estimate of $1.2 million to $1.8 million, but climbed steadily. Inigo Philbrick, seated next to dealer and columnist Kenny Schachter, engaged in the bidding until it was ultimately nabbed by French collector and dealer, John Sayegh-Belchatowski, for $1.22 million.
An untitled work by Cy Twombly brought energy levels back up as it hammered for its high estimate, $1.2 million—$1.46 million with premium—to art adviser Todd Levin. Another adviser, Judy Hess, was the victor on Georg Baselitz’s moody Schwarze Säule (Black Column), 1983, for $1.46 million, a modest victory for the beleaguered German field.
The evening was capped off by Maurizio Cattelan’s sale of 30 different museum scarves, which in the house’s lobby were draped over a campy cutout of the artist with arms of exaggerated length giving two big thumbs up. The profits from Museums League, which sold for $27,500, will go to the Brooklyn Museum.
Taking questions from the press after the sale, Dolman noted that tonight’s result “just missed out on Phillips’s best sale ever” and Westphal pointed out that Wednesday’s contemporary day sales were the highest the house had ever recorded. The market seems to be humming along. And the crowd certainly was. It was about half past six, and the seats had completely emptied, with everyone moving on to Christie’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center, just a few blocks away, where the week’s evening auctions will conclude tonight with a contemporary sale with a 7 p.m. start time. A full report of that auction will follow in these pages.
Judd Tully contributed reporting.