With art-market veterans still reeling from the $450.3 million sale of a Leonardo at Christie’s last night, the usual gang of collectors, dealers, advisers, and auction fans convened tonight at the 57th Street headquarters of Phillips in New York for its November 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale. One Phillips exec joked before the auction that they had added a Michelangelo at the last minute—a Pietà, as it happened. There was, of course, no way that this evening’s theater could compare to the previous night’s spectacle, but the perennially third-place house nevertheless delivered a solid outing, selling 39 pieces of art for about $113.9 million.
Only four works failed to find buyers over the course of the 70-minute sale, which had a strong sell-through rate of about 90 percent. And while $113.9 million may seem modest compared to some other hauls—it would buy only a quarter stake in the Leonardo at last night’s price—it topped the totals reached at the same sale last year, and at the house’s sale in May, which brought in $111.2 million and $110.3 million, respectively.
Peter Doig delivered the top lot of the sale, his Red House (1995–96)—a large, wintry landscape populated by a scrum of ghostly figures—selling quickly for $21.1 million, well within its estimate of $18 million to $22 million. The work had last been on the market at Christie’s London in October 2008, when it sold for £1.83 million, or about $3.17 million at the exchange rate at the time. Even accounting for the fees that go into owning and selling a work like that, it certainly appears to have been a pretty good return on investment for tonight’s seller.
Under the leadership of chairman and CEO Edward Dolman, Phillips, long known as a trading post for ultra-contemporary works, has been offering up pieces from earlier in the 20th century, and that strategy appeared to pay off as two Matisses and two Picassos handily jumped their estimates.
In no case was this dynamic more dramatic than when, just a few minutes into the sale, a drawing on paper in blue and red crayon of a sleeping Françoise Gilot that Picasso made on Halloween of 1946 arrived on the block. Estimated to sell for at most $1.5 million, Portrait de femme endormie. III climbed steadily upward, past $2 million, then $3 million, and $4 million. Auctioneer Henry Highley eventually refereed a competition between two Phillips specialists representing phone bidders, and the winner secured victory by agreeing to pay $9.32 million. (All sales prices include fees, unless otherwise noted.)
The Doig was the lone eight-digit finisher of the night, but a 1959 Franz Kline, Sawyer, in which patches of light brown, tan, and almost orange join the artist’s trademark black and white, came close, selling for $9.99 million, just below its $10 million low estimate. That painting went to a gentleman bidding in the room, who also picked up the next lot, an untitled Joan Mitchell from 1964, paying $3.62 million, well above its $2.5 million estimate.
Carmen Herrera’s 1956 painting Untitled (Orange and Black), a black rectangle cut by four angular orange shapes, similarly outperformed, selling for $1.18 million, a bit more than its $1 million high estimate. The painting achieved a new record for the 102-year-old artist.
Richard Gray Gallery partner Andy Fabricant—“smartly dressed in a tux,” Highley told the room—picked up a shimmering, golden Rudolf Stingel from 2007 for $6.39 million, squarely within its $5 million-to-$7 million estimate. The piece is electroformed copper, plated nickel, and gold, and was cast from Celotex panels that visitors were allowed to deface when it was first on view.
Nothing quite matched the drama of the fast-rising Picasso drawing, but the sale had its moments of intrigue, as when a 2004 Cy Twombly, with rose acrylic dripping down its white body, looked set to sell as some light bidding settled in the upper $5 millions. But then San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier joined the action from the side of the room, bidding $6 million. Meier ended up having to fight a phone bidder for a few moments more, eventually going to $6.4 million, or $7.5 million with fees—just under the work’s $8 million high estimate.
The first pass did not occur until almost halfway through the sale, at lot 20, when an untitled raster-dot painting of a woman in lingerie by Sigmar Polke failed to find a buyer. The piece had last been seen at auction just three years ago, when it sold at Christie’s London for £1.09 million, or $1.70 million at the time. By that point, members of the audience were beginning to leave, no doubt heading over to Sotheby’s, whose evening sale began at 7 p.m. (The other passes at Phillips were a wonderfully gross painting of Robocop by Polke, a Mike Kelley, and a Joe Bradley.)
And not every work was minting its seller a fine profit. A Thomas Schütte bronze, just about 100 inches tall, titled Großer Geist Nr. 9 (1998)—which had last appeared on the block in May of 2013 (at Phillips in New York, as it happens), and which had sold for $4.09 million—went for just $3.38 million. The work was within its $3 million to $4 million estimate.
As is always the case at these affairs, there were some delightful surprises, like one of Jasper Johns’s rare drawings on plastic. (Some may recall that Craig F. Starr Gallery did a superb show of these back in 2010.) This one, dated 1979, has the numbers zero through nine sitting atop one another in classic Johns fashion, and it made a within-estimate $975,000. An anonymous seller was parting with the work, which had been a gift from the collector Leonard Lauder. What a gift!
Other notable provenances included a later Warhol “Marilyn” painting from the collection of producer Douglas S. Cramer, which was snapped up by a lady in the room for $1.82 million, and a 1931 Paul Klee that had been in the collection of the Baron Elie de Rothschild, which sold for $915,000, a touch above its $800,000 estimate.
After the sale, Dolman took a break from congratulating colleagues to discuss the auction. “We are absolutely delighted with the sale today,” he said, grinning. Some consider 2014 the height of the art market of late, he noted, and some of the speculative money flowing at that time has left. “A lot of that froth has gone out of the market now, and we’re back to quality,” he said, “and quality is great 20th-century art.”
Dolman pointed out that Phillips had guaranteed a number of works—18 of the 44 pieces—and they had performed well. “I think the art market is in pretty good, robust health,” he said.
By this point it was about 6:30 p.m., and the salesroom was empty except for Phillips employees. The crowd had moved on to Sotheby’s. A report from that auction will follow later tonight.