NEW YORK—Sotheby’s and Christie’s had already taken over $822 million dollars for contemporary art (including more than $180 million during their best day sales ever) by the time auctioneer and chairman Simon de Pury took to the rostrum for Phillips, de Pury & Company’s main evening sale on May 17. The big question: “Was there any steam left in the market?”
A full 74 lots and $33.3 million later, the answer had to be yes—plenty. Not only was the total a record for Phillips, above its high presale estimate of $31 million, but another 14 records had been set. They ranged from a triple-estimate $192,000 for a 2005 painting on foil by German hotshot Anselm Reyle to an above-estimate $1.4 million for a 1962 sculpture by John Chamberlain.
Phillips’ policy of covering postwar as well as contemporary art continues to bring in some of the higher-selling lots—though apart from the Chamberlain, the top-selling works by Andy Warhol ($3.4 million for the 1965 Colored Campbell’s Soup Can) and Gerhard Richter ($1.4 million for the color-chart painting Three Grays One Upon the Other, dated 1966/84) hovered around the low estimates.
More positive results for big-name postwar artists were the $768,000 given by the Citigroup Art Advisory Service for Donald Judd’s 1987 Untitled (Swiss Box Progression), estimated at $600,000/800,0000; and $880,000, for Hands/Horses (To Agree), 1987, a photographic work by one of the week’s hottest artists, John Baldessari (estimate: $400,000/600,000). Other works by Baldessari at the sale were bought by dealer Larry Gagosian and art adviser Kim Heirston, who secured Street Scene and Reclining Person (with shoes), 2000, from the “Overlap” series, for $384,000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000).
The main strength, as usual at Phillips, was with young or mid-career artists. Prices for David Hammons have always been something of a mystery. Estimated to set a new record at $1.5/2 million, his Untitled, 2004, an assemblage of found objects and African tribal carvings, wall-mounted like a stag’s head in a hunting lodge, is one of a series (mostly owned by Christie’s owner and art collector François Pinault). Only one bidder seemed to want to follow his example, and it sold, albeit for a record, below estimate for $1.49 million.
But where estimates were set temptingly low, prices escalated. Creature of Habit 2 (Deer), a 1990 bronze sculpture by Rosemarie Trockel, was estimated at $100,000/150,000 but fell to dealer Per Skarstedt for a record $312,000. One of Mark Grotjahn’s butterfly paintings, Untitled (Black Butterfly over Lime), 2004, sold to the Gagosian gallery for a record $360,000, six times its $60,000 high estimate. Gagosian also paid an above-estimate $456,000 for Baldessari’s 1996 acrylic-and-ink-jet painting Pink Pig, 2305 Highland Ave., National City California. He also supported Damien Hirst’s market, buying the vitrine of formaldehyde containers Loss of Memory Is Worse than Death, 1994, for $600,000 (estimate: $300,000/400,000), and the pale spot painting Naje Haje, 2000, for $846,400 (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), just when it looked like it might go unsold.
Other artists apparently riding a heat wave and breaking records were Rudolf Stingel, whose casually graffitied silver painting Untitled 2002 won $734,400 (estimate: $60,000/80,000) from Alain Jathiere; Richard Phillips, whose photorealist Lip Biter, 1999, took $384,000 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); Johannes Kahrs, whose painting, Jealousy, 1995, sold for $228,000 (estimate: $60,000/80,000); Matthew Ritchie, whose large 1996 painting Trouble in Mind went to Jeffrey Deitch for $216,000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000); Fred Tomaselli, whose intricate artwork Butterfly Effect, 1999, fetched $336,000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000); Jiri Georg Dokoupil, whose 1984 painting Zigarette mit Streichhölzern made $312,000 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); and Mike Bidlo, whose 1983 Jackson Pollock appropriation Lavender Mist was acquired by dealer Nicholas Sands for $420,000 (estimate: $80,000/120,000). A number of these artists have had long-standing careers, but prices for their works only now are beginning to take off.
Phillips department head Michael McGinnis reported that there had been significant bidding from Asia and Eastern Europe. Phillips rounded off the week with a $14.9 million day sale in which a jaw-dropping 54 artists’ records (many fresh to auction) were set and only six percent of the 384 lower-priced works went unsold.