As the lights dimmed tonight at the Phillips salesroom in midtown Manhattan at about earlier this evening, auctioneer Henry Highley, David Hammons’s African-American Flag (1990) hanging on the wall behind him, had to make the rather uncomfortable admission that three lots from the house’s 40-lot sale of 20th-century and contemporary art had been withdrawn—a modest Calder with an $800,000 low estimate, a Mark Grotjahn expected to sell for at least $1 million, and, most painful, what was to be one of the stars of the show, Gerhard Richter’s 1994 Abstraktes Bild (811-1), which had last been sold on Valentine’s Day in 2012, at Christie’s in London, for $15.5 million and had now been given an estimate of $15 million to $20 million.
But once that awkward bit of business was complete, it ended up being a solid evening for the perennially third-place house, which has worked to gain a larger share in the contemporary market since Edward Dolman came on as CEO in 2014. Including buyer’s premiums, its sale of 37 lots brought in $110.3 million, just about what it totaled for the same number of works at its New York sale of contemporary art last November. The result tonight more than doubled what it earned at the corresponding auction last year, when it brought in just $46.6 million on 34 lots. All 37 of the pieces that ended up being offered found buyers, for a 100-percent sell-through rate that, in industry parlance, is termed a white-glove sale. Given the withdrawals it could perhaps be termed a white-glove with an asterisk, or an off-white sale.
The top lot of the night was a 1991 Peter Doig painting of a house in the wilderness, which went for $28.8 million to Svetlana Marich, the house’s worldwide deputy chairman, bidding on behalf of a client on the phone. At a press conference following the sale, Cheyenne Westphal, who came on as the company’s chairman last year, was quick to note that the result makes Doig the priciest living British artist and one of only five living artists whose work has sold at auction for more than $25 million.
The whole affair ran a few minutes over an hour, and there were few fireworks, with most contests taking place between a handful bidders, plodding along at increments of $100,000, $50,000, or less. About halfway through the sale, when the 8-by-6-foot Richter would have arrived on the block, many attendees headed toward the exit, no doubt on their way to Sotheby’s, about a mile-and-a-half uptown, where another postwar and contemporary evening sale was set to start at 7 p.m. But even with the thinning crowd and the rough time slot, most of the works sold within or above their high estimates, with only four slipping below.
What happened to the Richter, which was printed on the back cover of the house’s catalogue? “The picture was withdrawn on the request of the consignor, who decided to keep it,” Westphal said after the sale. Pressed by a journalist, she added, “I’m afraid it was the consignor’s decision to take the painting out of the sale and we have to respect it.”
A late Willem de Kooning, from 1980, was the second-highest lot, going for $13.1 million (all prices are with premium, unless otherwise noted), just above its $12-million estimate. The only other work to crack eight digits was a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, offered by the late artist’s foundation, which made $10.3 million, a record for a sculpture by the artist.
Dealers were on hand, getting some business done. Pace Gallery’s president, Marc Glimcher, bidding from the back of the room, picked up a circa 1920 silvered bronze of a nude woman by Alexander Archipenko that the Museum of Modern Art was deaccessioning, for $250,000, and a 1954 Lee Krasner titled Gold or Silver was won for $1.69 million by Paul Kasmin, who now represents the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Krasner Holdings. The work in question was acquired by its consignor back in May 2006 at Sotheby’s New York for $632,000, meaning that it had increased by a full $1 million since then—not a bad return over 11 years, even when accounting for inflation, fees, and so forth.
Of the 37 works hammered, 4 were by women and 6 were by Jean Michel Basquiat, the priciest of the latter being an untitled circa 1984 painting, roughly five feet square, of a lone man against a brown and tan background. After a grueling battle with phone bidders, a gentleman in the room won it for a $3 million hammer price, $3.61 million with fees.
On his way to the door a few lots later, standing at the side of the room, the same collector casually outbid a handful of others, purchasing a 1962 Kazuo Shiraga, titled T52, for $1.33 million. When approached downstairs, he introduced himself as Hiroshi Hashimoto, from Tokyo. “We didn’t come here specifically to buy the Basquiat, we’re just going around to all the sales,” his son, Chihiro Hashimoto, who lives in New York, said. Then his father looked around and saw, hanging in the Phillips lobby, the Shiraga he had just purchased.
The other big record of the night went to a work by Nicole Eisenman. Winter Solstice 2012 Dinner Party (2009) went for $670,000 against a high estimate of $150,000 as the first lot in the sale. (Her New York dealer, Anton Kern, could be seen exiting not too long after witnessing the moment.)
“The art market is much stronger than it was this time last year,” Dolman said after the sale. Discussing the results of the week of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art auctions in New York, he added, “I think it’s a very stable and predictable market right now, which is good for everybody.”
After the press conference, Highley, his job done, sat in the audience, surveying the room he had led from the podium. A colleague wandered over and congratulated him on his first white-glove sale. “Has anybody bought you white gloves?” he asked.
Highley laughed and demurred. “It’s not really deserved yet,” he said.