NEW YORK—On the face of it, Phillips de Pury & Company’s $29.7 million auction on Nov. 16 looked like a fairly solid performance. Offering art created primarily since the 1980s, the auction total fell within the presale estimate of $24.5/30 million. A total of 88 percent of lots offered were sold, and 18 artists’ records were broken. But the moments of buoyancy were matched by moments of flatness. Against the 22 lots that sold over their estimates, 18 sold below, and the most conspicuous of these were among the top lots.
Several of the below-estimate lots were part of a group of works consigned by hedge-fund manager Adam Sender, under a third-party guarantee arrangement that, as Phillips director Michael McGinnis explained, meant that Phillips would not lose money if the works failed to sell. It would be up to the third party, who was not named, to pick up the tab.
Five of the top-seven-selling lots had come from Sender, and it was a measure of the high prices he had negotiated that all set record prices. However, all but one sold either on or below their low estimates. It was unusual that so many works from one collection found buyers to bid against what was obviously the reserve. A mixed-media installation by Mike Kelley (b. 1954), Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-99 (estimate: $3/4 million), sold for $2.7 million after a single bid from collector Peter Brant. A work by Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), 99 Cent II Diptychon, 2001 (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million), sold on a $2.2 million phone bid from McGinnis for $2.5 million with premium.
Using different paddle numbers, McGinnis also took the Christopher Wool (b. 1955) enamel-on-aluminum “word” painting Hole in Your Fuckin Head (W31), 1992 (estimate: $1.5/2 million), for $1.7 million; and Untitled, 2000, by Tom Friedman (b. 1965), with an estimate of $800,000/1.2 million on a bid of $750,000. The final price with premium was $856,000.
The only one of Sender’s top-selling works to excite competition was Tender Nurse, 2002, by Richard Prince (b. 1949), which fell to collector Stavros Merjos for $2.25 million (estimate: $1.5/2 million). While Sender had announced he would give a percentage of the profits to the artists, collectors did not appear overeager to give him the profit levels he required.
A curious incident at the sale concerned a merry-go-round installation by Charles Ray (b. 1953), Revolution Counter-Revolution, 1990, which had been sent for sale by Italian collector Massimo Sandretto. Estimated at $1.5/2 million, it was initially pronounced unsold at $1.2 million. However, two lots later McGinnis signaled auctioneer Simon de Pury, to reopen the bidding after dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Sam Orlofsky from Gagosian Gallery had left their seats to confer with him. This time Deitch made a bid—the only bid—at $1.4 million, and it was duly knocked down to him. Why he did not bid the first time around, or make an aftersale offer, remains a mystery. But the price, $1.58 million with premium, will go down as an auction record.
The sale produced some genuinely strong prices especially for young artists. In his first appearance at auction, Mark Handforth (b. 1969) was represented with Starman, 2004, a light sculpture that was bought by Hauser & Wirth for $114,000 (estimate: $20,000/30,000). An installation by Scottish artist Jim Lambie (b. 1964), Green Door, 2004, fetched a record $144,000 (estimate: $60,000/80,000) from adviser Kim Heirston.
More-established artists to fare well included George Condo (b. 1957), whose unusual album- cover style painting of rock star Jimi Hendrix, Electric Angel, 1999, sold for a record $228,000.