The good news about Phillips $67m Sunday night sale was that the auction house in transition posted strong numbers relative to its previous sales and showed that it could expand the range of work it sold. The firm also demonstrated the ability to use guarantees to build its market position from a niche house to potentially credible alternative player.
The other bit of good news was that Phillips was able to pull off a Sunday evening sale in the middle of very crowded auction calendar. If the company can continue to build its complement of business getters and relationship managers, there’s real hope they will keep carving out a place for themselves where it was previously assumed there could be no survival.
The bad news was that the old habit of making estimates wholly aspirational continues to cast doubt on the above. Here’s how the Financial Times interpreted the sale:
More than half of the works at Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art auction sold below their estimates, if they sold at all, in a Sunday evening New York sale that strikes a sombre note for the upcoming week of sales. […]
Just six pieces went for more than their estimates, with two by Le Corbusier and Toshimitsu Imai setting records. Nine did not reach their reserve price. Of those, Phillips had guaranteed six, including the Kapoor and an Andy Warhol, for an estimated total of at least $5.15m.
The pros walked away with mixed feelings. James Tarmy captured the conflicted mood on Bloomberg:
“It wasn’t a sale where you would jump up and down, but it was a solid sale,” said collector Don Rubell as he left the auction. “It puts them in an interesting position with stronger pieces and better price points.”
“Having an auction on a Sunday is kind of a confusing choice,” said Inigo Philbrick […]. When asked about the overall sale, he gave a one-word answer: “Weak.”
“It’s a deep market,” said the dealer Christophe Van De Weghe. “The positive energy of last week will continue into this week.”
Judd Tully gave just one example of how many of the sales that seemed lackluster against estimates but provided decent returns for the sellers:
Donald Judd’s pristine “Untitled (4 Units, 89-49 Ballantine) from 1989 and fabricated in Douglas fir plywood sold to London dealer Fernando Mignoni for $1,085,000 (est. $1-1.5 million). It came to market “naked,” meaning without a financial guarantee. It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in the single owner “Select Works from the Donald Judd Foundation” in May 2006 for $632,000.
Some of the best performing works in the sale came from the earlier period now covered by the auction house. There were several bidders on a Joan Mitchell that sold for a solid $1.925m or the top end of the estimate range. There would have been one more if anyone from Phillips had noticed the man in the back rows waving his paddle to bid but who gave up after being ignored.
One thing Phillips is not blind to is the shift in the market away from flippable works by newly established artists. Scott Reyburn got this comment:
“Last year, collectors were being asked to pay six-figure prices for works by artists in their 20s,” Wendy Goldsmith, an art adviser based in London. “When it reached that sort of level, no longer play money, clients took a breath and started to look around at what else they could buy in that range.”
That doesn’t mean Phillips is out of the trend business. Inigo Philbrick thought the sale was weak but he was happy to get in there bidding and was gratified to have just enough competition to reconfirm his own estimation of the work’s value:
The sale included some younger stars, as evidenced by Wade Guyton’s flame infused composition “Untitled” from 2005, printed out in Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, which sold to London dealer Inigo Philbrick for $2,405,000 (est. $2-3 million). “It was an aggressive estimate,” said Philbrick as he exited the salesroom, “and there was competition for the work which I liked.” He bought the work on behalf of a European collector.
Phillips’s Revamp Push Finds Success in $66.9 Million Art Sale (Bloomberg Business)
Phillips’s Steady 20th-Century and Contemporary Art Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
First ‘Crossover’ Auction at Phillips Yields $66.9 Million (The New York Times)