On the heels of Christie’s record-shattering sale of Ed Ruscha’s painting Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) at its postwar and contemporary auction last night, Phillips achieved a $108.1 million result at its 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale in New York on Thursday. The sale fared significantly better than last year’s auction at Phillips, which brought in $88.5 million.
Almost all of the 42 lots sold, with only two works—Lygia Clark’s aluminum sculpture Bicho – O antes é o depois (1963) and Rufino Tamayo’s deep red painting Cinco Rebanadas de Sandía, which was from the collection of Florence Knoll Bassett—failing to find a buyer. The sale yielded an impressive 95 percent sell-through rate by lot, and included four house-backed lots and 12 third-party guarantees already in place.
One new auction record was set at Phillips this evening: Sean Scully’s abstract work Red Bar (2003–04), estimated at $900,000–$1.2 million, which sold for $1.76 million with buyer’s premium, generating a new auction record for the artist. And one other lot caused a bidding frenzy. Party Down (2019), a painting by Julie Curtiss, whose auction record was set earlier today at a Christie’s day sale, sold for $400,000—hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond its estimate. (That figure is still just $23,000 shy of the Christie’s record.)
The top lot of the evening was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting The Ring, which was estimated to sell for $10 million to $15 million and carried a third-party guarantee. The work, which Acquavella Galleries had offered at Frieze London last month for $16 million, sold for $15 million, and shows a figure vigorously lifting a weight, likely in reference to famed boxer Muhammad Ali, though perhaps also as an allusion to a boxing magazine of the same name.
Trailing the Basquiat was Philip Guston’s Smoking II (1973), which last appeared at auction at Christie’s in 1982 and sold tonight for about $7.65 million. The painting came with a third-party guarantee. Other highlights included Andy Warhol’s Late Four-Foot Flowers (1967), which sold for $7.43 million, and Picasso’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1948), which went for $4.82 million.
Jean-Paul Engelen, worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips, told ARTnews that the evening’s mix of modern, postwar, and contemporary works is “a sign of the times, and I do think it makes our sale exciting and surprising, not predictable.” The exhibition of works set to hit the block, he said, generated “our busiest viewing period that we’ve had during the four and half years that I’ve been here.” Engelen attributed that fervor to the “very fresh material” in the sale, pointing out that 80 percent of the lots have never before gone to auction and that 41 out of 42 lots came from private consigners.
Joan Miró’s painting Paysan catalan inquiet par le passage d’un vol d’oiseaux (1952), estimated between $7 million and $10 million, underwhelmed at $4.58 million. Before the sale tonight, the work had been in the same private collection since 1954.
Three works by KAWS, whose work is currently on view at the Qatar Museums in Doha and will have a survey at the Brooklyn Museum in 2021, were included in the sale. The 2008 painting of a closeup of SpongeBob SquarePants’s manic face, titled GRRR!, had an estimate of $1.8 million to $2.5 million, and carried a third-party guarantee; it sold for $2.18 million. KAWS’s wood sculpture FINAL DAYS, also guaranteed by a third-party, went for $1.46 million (est. $1 million to $1.5 million). Finally, the shaped canvas on panel painting UNTITLED (2014), which depicts a number of vibrantly colored, cartoonish hands and had the same estimate as FINAL DAYS, sold for $1.52 million.
Another big-ticket item was Yoshimoto Nara’s 2000 painting Little Thinker, which pictures a pensive child rendered in subdued tones. The appearance of this work by Nara followed the artist’s record-breaking sale of Knife Behind Back (2000) for $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last month. Additionally, Nara’s upcoming retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, slated to open in spring 2020, will travel to Shanghai’s Yuz Museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and an institution in Rotterdam. Estimated at $3.5 million–$4.5 million, Little Thinker sold for approximately $4 million.
“It’s been coming for a while that Nara was going to make big prices,” Engelen said. “It’s not a total surprise.”
Jeff Koons’s Hulk (Friends), 2004–12, a sculpture depicting a wrathful superhero with bulging muscles, along with some animal friends, carried an estimate between $3 million and $5 million along with a third-party guarantee. The work sold for firmly within that estimate, at $3.38 million.
For four years in a row, Phillips has set records for Carmen Herrera, the intrepid painter and sculptor who is now 104 years old. But that streak came to an end tonight, as her acrylic-on-wood work Amarillo “Uno” (1971) sold for $1.22 million, just under its low estimate of $1.3 million.
Other notable sales include James Rosenquist’s undulating Highway Temple (1979), which was purchased by dealer Thaddaeus Ropac for $740,000, and Norman Rockwell’s painting Before the Shot (1958), which sold for $4.7 million to a contemporary collector, according to Phillips chairman Cheyenne Westphal.
In remarks after the sale, Ed Dolman, CEO of Phillips, called the bidding “measured” but expressed that the “progression [from last year’s sale] is extremely encouraging.” He called the evening’s results “very solid and satisfactory” in the face of a shrinking market.
Tonight’s auction was the last major sale that will be held in Phillips’s current location before the house’s move to a brand new global headquarters at 432 Park Avenue.