NEW YORK—After opening proceedings for the fall contemporary art sales in New York with a small but prestigious sale to raise funds for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Nov. 7, Phillips de Pury & Company moved swiftly into the main part one sale. However, the pace of bidding slowed dramatically.
Although all but seven of the 45 lots sold for a total of $71.3 million, just edging past the lower pre-sale estimate of $66.1 million by virtue of the buyer’s premium, 25 of the sold lots saw hammer prices on or below low estimates, often on a single phone bid. Many of these were guaranteed lots, and the success of the sale depends on how these results are judged. As some observers wonder, if a work has already been sold to a guarantor, is its sale at auction at the agreed price an auction sale or just the re-enactment of a privately agreed sale?
In any case, 18 works were guaranteed with a combined low estimate of $51.1 million (excluding premium) and sold for a hammer aggregate of $45.3 million ($51.7 million including the premium). The top seven lots were all guaranteed.
But Phillips executives were obviously pleased with the results. Said worldwide contemporary art head, Michael McGinnis: “Tonight’s excellent results demonstrate the depth of the market. We saw consistent participation throughout and steady results in line with our expectations.”
Cy Twombly’s late painting, Untitled, 2006, sold within its estimate for $9 million including premium, against an $8 million/12 million estimate—almost in line with retail prices and a record for a late, i.e., post 1970s, painting. Similarly, Andy Warhol’s Nine Gold Marilyns (Reversal Series), 1980, sold for $7.9 million including premium against a $7 million/10 million estimate.
For collectors of Richard Prince “Nurse” paintings series, it was encouraging to see four bidders go for Runaway Nurse, 2006, which sold for $6.8 million against a $5 million/7 million estimate, the highest price for Prince since the 2007/08 boom. Fourth-highest was Alexander Calder’s stabile, Trepied, 1972, which had last sold in May 1999 for $1.5 million and sold, again on a low estimate bid, for $5.7 million to dealer David Nahmad, a longtime buyer of Calder’s works.
There were few short term gains in Warhol prices. A small “Fright Wig” series Self-Portrait, 1986, that had been bought at Christie’s New York in May 2008 for $3.5 million, was among the guaranteed lots and sold on a $4 million bid, against a $4 million/6 million estimate.
And a small Jackie, 1964, also guaranteed, sold for $1.3 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million) compared to near identical works which sold for $1.5 million in May 2011 and $1.65 million in November 2010. A large Warhol, Knives, 1982, was also guaranteed and sold on the low estimate to bring $3.4 million with premium (estimate: $3 million/5 million)—a record nonetheless for a painting from the “Knife” series.
Willem de Kooning’s late “ribbon” paintings do not appear to be in demand either as the guaranteed Untitled XVIII, 1984, sold below estimate for $3.4 million including premium (estimate: $4 million/6 million). A very similar work sold at Phillips in London in June 2008 for $7 million.
And a word painting, Romance, 1980, by Ed Ruscha, which Phillips had a financial interest in since it was bought in with a guarantee at Phillips London in June 2008 with a $1.5 million/2.5 million estimate, cannot have realized much of a profit for the auctioneers as it sold for $1.5 million including premium.
Other works that struggled to meet estimates included: a nearly 12-foot-high steel plate sculpture, Palms, 1985, by Richard Serra, which sold to the Gagosian Gallery for $2.3 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million)—a record at auction nonetheless; and a Damien Hirst butterfly painting, Disintegration – The Crown of Life, 2006, which was guaranteed and sold to fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger for $1.4 million including premium against a $1.2 million/1.8 million estimate. Phillips sold a companion piece to this work, Observation, the Crown of Justice, in London in October for $1.2 million—again guaranteed and sold on a bid below the estimate. Another Hirst, the large spot painting Au-195m, 2008, had no guarantee and went unsold with a $1 million/1.5 million estimate.
The market for Maurizio Cattelan, however, is looking up if the price for his sculpture of two policemen, Frank and Jamie, 2002, is anything to go by. Made in an edition of two, plus one artist’s proof, examples sold in June 2010 for $1.5 million, in November 2010 for $1.6 million and in this sale for $2.3 million—albeit on a bid at the low end of the $2 million/3 million estimate.
Only three works in the sale exceeded estimates: Christopher Wool’s floral pattern painting, Untitled (P 177), 1993, which sold for $2.2 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million), the highest auction price for a non-word painting by Wool; a Jacob Kassay untitled silver deposit painting from 2010, which sold for $206,500 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); and Sterling Ruby’s day-glo pink and orange canvas, SP40, 2008, which set a record for a painting by the artist at $326,500 (estimate: $100,000/150,000).
In the Guggenheim sale that opened the evening, there were 22 lots donated by artists and their representative galleries. All but one sold, raising $2.9 million against a guide estimate of $1.6 million/2 million. Waiving the buyers premium, the sale got off to a racing start with three auction records: Rob Pruitt’s three-part penguin painting, Ladies and Gentleman….(Art Awards Penguins), 2009, which sold for $55,000 against a $30,000/50,000 estimate; Adam McEwen’s densely-marked graphite panel, Untitled, 2011, which sold for $150,000 against a $40,000/60,000 estimate, tripling the artist’s previous auction high; and Nate Lowman’s life-size figure, This Marilyn, 2011, raced past a $40,000/60,000 estimate and a previous $140,000 high set at Christie’s recent Art for Haiti sale, to sell for $240,000. The highest price of the fundraiser was $580,000, given by Chicago collector Stefan Edlis, against the $300,000/400,000 estimate for Cattelan’s group of eleven taxidermized pigeons, Others, 2011—a concept based on the artist’s original installation, Turisti, at the Venice Biennale in 1997.