On Monday night, Phillips aimed to see the year out on a high note this evening with a sale of 35 lots of 20th century and contemporary art that carried a $110 million–$160 million estimate. So far this year, no evening sale of modern and contemporary art at any of Phillips’s international branches has made than $50 million, a sum brought in at a joint New York–Hong Kong sale last week. At long last, the house surpassed expectations and hit its estimate with a $134.6 million total, marking the highest total for a Phillips contemporary art sale in New York and a 25 percent increase over last winter’s equivalent sale.
Four works were estimated to bring over $10 million each and 14 lots were guaranteed (13 by third parties) with a combined low estimate of $89.6 million, or 81.5 percent of the total—a high percentage, even for Phillips. As house chairman Ed Dolman has said in the past, “We need to make guarantees to get the works in for sale.”
The top lot was David Hockney’s 7-by-5-foot 1980 painting Nichols Canyon, a view of the landscape close to his home in California. The anonymous “Distinguished American Collector” who had consigned it turned out to be Seattle-based real-estate developer Richard Hedreen, currently better known for buying a Frans Hals from Sotheby’s in a private sale in 2011 for $11.75 million, only to be told that it was a forgery.
At the sale, there appeared to be only three bidders, one on behalf of the guarantor. Estimated to sell at $35 million, it got one bid over that from London-based Phillips chairman Cheyenne Westphal, bringing the work to $41 million—a record for a Hockney landscape.
Next on the list was a rare Clyfford Still painting, PH-407—an unusual lot because most similar works are held by the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Guaranteed with an estimate of $17 million, it had previously belonged to the German collector Frieder Burda, who died last year, after which it was bought privately by the seller. But there appeared to be only one bid on this work as it sold to Miety Heiden, Phillips head of private sales in New York, for a premium-inclusive sum of $18.4 million. It looked like a guarantor purchase
Four works had been sent from the collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr., Virginia-based collectors and major donors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. William died this summer, and Pamela and an extended family survives him. The selection of works here reflected their interest in contemporary Black artists.
Amy Sherald’s The Bathers (2015) opened the auction in dramatic fashion. The work was only the second work ever to appear at auction by the artist, who famously painted Michelle Obama and who has recently been added to the roster at the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. Her first work at auction was sold in May 2019 for $350,000 against a $80,000–$120,000 estimate. The Bathers took off in a much bigger way, with two New York–based staffers taking it far beyond the $150,000–$200,000 estimate to a hammer price of $4.3 million.
However, the Royalls’ Barkley L. Hendricks painting, Salina/Star (1980), failed to take off—it had been overshadowed, perhaps, by the artist’s sexier portrait Jackie Sha-La-La, which sold for S2.8 million at Sotheby’s last month. Salina sold below estimate on a single bid for $937,500.
The Hendricks market may have peaked, but young artists in the Royalls’ collection are only seeing their profile rise in the auction world. Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Mickalene Thomas (The Coyote), 2017, went just beyond the artist’s previous record, selling at double its estimate for $378,000, while Mickalene Thomas’ previous record of $697,000 was overcome comfortably when the painting I’ve Been Good to Me (2013), depicting a confident seated woman in a rhinestone-studded dress, tripled its estimate to sell for $901,200. The winning bid on the Thomas was taken by Sotheby’s former head of Impressionist and modern art David Norman, who now serves under the same title at Phillips.
Inevitably, painter Amoako Boafo—currently a market force—was represented in the sale. His 2019 painting Purple on Red quadrupled estimates, selling for $756,000. Only two works by Vaughn Spann have appeared at auction before, and all since September. At Phillips, Big Black Rainbow (Deep Dive), 2019, attracted a three-way bidding war between London, New York, and Michigan; it ended when the New York staffer Kevie Yang (who often bids for Asian clients) won it for a new record of $239,400, against an estimate of $40,000–$60,000.
Even more competition came for auction newcomer Jadé Fadojutimi. The British artist, not yet 30 years old, got noticed at her 2017 M.A. degree show by the London gallerist Pippy Houldsworth, who was drawn to her dynamic semi-abstractions. For the artist’s second appearance at auction, her painting Lotus Land (2017), estimated at $40,000–$60,000, attracted multiple bids from Samoa, Hong Kong, London, and New York before selling to a New York online bidder for $378,000.
Although works by younger stars generated the most attention, the Phillips sale did offer a sense of how postwar artists have performed in the market as of late.
An early 12-inch square Agnes Martin, for instance, bought in 1981 for $5,000, sold for $2.5 million. A horizontal abstract by Helen Frankenthaler, Off White Square (1973), one of the largest paintings the artist ever completed and previously owned by the French-American billionaire businessman William Louis-Dreyfus, also sold. Having placed Off White Square with a guarantee and a $2.5 million–$3.5 million estimate–equal to the highest estimate made for Frankenthaler—it was bought for $3.7 million.
The market for another female Abstract Expressionist, Joan Mitchell, showed signs of flagging. An early work estimated at $10 million–$15 million, which was guaranteed, sold on a single bid, probably from the guarantor, for $11.3 million, while a later diptych with a $9 million–$12 million estimate became the most significant unsold lot of the sale.