Phillips, the perennial bridesmaid of the New York sales, gambled this year by mixing Impressionist and modern work among its usually all-contemporary lots—and by scheduling the auction on that most taboo of sales nights, Sunday. But it seems the house avoided total embarrassment by offloading most of its big lots en route to sales of $66.9 million, barely over a low estimate of $64.4 million.
It also scored a new record for Le Corbusier, as the artist’s Femme rouge at pelote verte went for $4.6 million, solidly eclipsing the mark made by a sculpture of his that sold for $3.3 million in a Christie’s sale in Zurich last year (but not quite coming close to the high estimate of $6 million). And the top lot of the night, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXVIII, went for $11.4 million.
But let us be clear: these are not blockbuster results that will foster in an era of sales scheduled for Sundays. Only eleven lots out of a total of 52 breached their high estimate, and the sell-through rate was a so-so 82 percent. But with the addition of the sale of the A. Alfred Taubman estate at Sotheby’s last week, and the invention of the curated sales at Christie’s that continue with the Artist’s Muse Monday night, the schedule for the week is too jam-packed for Phillips to do anything else.
“If we don’t have another slot, this is the best slot we can get,” said Hugues Joffre, worldwide head of 20th-century art for Phillips and the gavel-wielder for the night. (The Frenchman earned some snickers when he pronounced Wade Guyton as Wade GOO-ton. “I apologized to the concerned parties,” Joffre assured the press corps post-sale.)
“We were worried about it, but we didn’t see buyer fatigue,” said Ed Dolman, the new Phillips CEO, who arrived after a career at Christie’s and is hellbent on shaking off the house’s also-ran reputation by poaching pros, including Joffre, from his ex-employer.
Things started out positively enough. Once the schmoozing stopped across the street at the lobby bar of the Four Seasons, everyone filed in and Joffre began bidding on Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets, which was once in the collection of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. The first lot seemed auspicious, as the price was ginned up among multiple bidders until Matt Carey-Williams, deputy chairman of Europe & Asia, locked it down for on the phone at a $1.1 million hammer, $1.3 million with premium—a strong $400,000 over the high estimate.
The sale continued apace: Richard Grey Gallery partner Andrew Fabricant bought a Robert Gober sculpture at $2.2 million for whomever he was talking to on his headphones. Works by Rudolph Stingel and Cindy Sherman went to collectors actually present in the room. Dealer Joe Nahmad chatted in the front row with Brandon Davis, Lindsay Lohan’s loquacious ex-boyfriend.
Then came the prize lot of the night, the de Kooning. After a few seconds of bidding, it went to a specialist on the phone with a collector, netting a price that was easily the night’s high—but, at $11.4 million, nearly $4 million below its high estimate.
“Pretty cheap, don’t you think?” Fabricant said to his seatmates, Tico and David Mugrabi. “To buy it, it’s like 12. Really great picture.”
Nothing would come close to that number the rest of the night, and some of the whiffs included work by Ed Ruscha, Anish Kapoor, and an Andy Warhol that depicted the artist Julian Schnabel.
(The brothers Mugrabi, who are part of a family that might own more Warhols than all other collectors combined, did not bid on the artist’s depiction of their sometime party mate.)
But it seems the first-ever Sunday show was enough of a success to keep the same day next year, however reluctantly. Dolman said that despite what he referred to optimistically as “selective bidding,” sales were up 30 percent from a year ago.
“Plus, I don’t know if you saw the watch sale in Geneva,” he added, somewhat unexpectedly. “But we made 27 million—that’s 27 million Swiss Franc.”
“Well,” Joffre said, sighing, “that’s basically the same as $27 million dollars these days.”
The New York sales continue Monday night with the Artist’s Muse, at Christie’s.