If we’re being honest with ourselves, the results from Phillips London evening sale told us almost nothing about the effects of the British departure from the EU and possibly less about the state of the art market.
By the numbers, £11.89m with 68% of the lots sold, the sale was a typical Phillips event where estimates remain aspirational and success is confined to a few isolated lots. The good news is that Phillips was able to stack those lots at the beginning of the sale creating the impression of a strong, well-ordered market.
Getting good consignments, especially in 20th Century works that are the key to the house’s strategic expansion, will be key even if there’s every indication over the near term that prying objects loose from their owners is the current market challenge.
Judd Tully button-holed dealer Daniel Rogath after the sale:
“All of the sales this week are thin material, and I think Philips did as well as could be expected,” he stated. “Consigners are holding back because the auction houses aren’t giving guarantees, and until they do, the turnover will be lower.”
Reports from the room had the mood strong and the sense that there were plenty of bidders looking to take advantage of a short term dislocation in currency markets. Scott Reyburn got this quote to sum it up:
“They did a decent job, given this was the first sale of Brexit week,” said Morgan Long, director of art investment at the Fine Art Fund Group, an advisory company based in London. “They dropped the reserves, buyers were thinking about currencies and there was deeper bidding on the some of the lots that sold than we’ve seen in a while.”
The only curious note came from Tully who talked to Phillips’s leader about the drop in the pound over the weekend:
“It absolutely helped the sale,” Phillips CEO and chairman Edward Dolman remarked following the barely hour-long session. “We convert [pounds to dollars] on the day of the sale, and American and Asian buyers were saving 10 to 15 percent. The drop in sterling energized foreign buying tonight.”
It’s not clear what Dolman is saying here. The quote suggests that Phillips will absorb any currency fluctuation between the exchange rates on the day of the sale and any future date when a buyer settles accounts. [A request to clarify this statement was sent to Phillips before publication.]
If currency fluctuations helped the sale, they were most effective at the top of the estimate range. Phillips had some good works which fetched good prices from a goodly number of bidders. All of which suggests the overall tone of the market from the last 18 months (namely, buyers are looking for quality examples of any artist’s work) continues to punish ordinary material. (The exception to that rule may have been the guaranteed Richter abstract that Phillips did a very good job in getting sold.) Here’s Colin Gleadell:
The cheaper end looked very vulnerable to the post Brexit fall out. This might include the less typical examples offered by auction stars Mark Bradford and Adrian Ghenie, for which there were no fireworks, or, in the unsold batch, Danh Vo, or Raqib Shaw.
All that may be true, but even with a small sale Phillips proved there’s always a bull market somewhere. Gleadell illustrated that point with a work that responded to pent-up primary market demand:
The sale got off to an electric start when Ugo Rondinone’s two bluestone figures, The Pleasant and The Delighted (2013), sold for a double estimate £281,000 ($383,613). Advisor Kim Heirston was one of the underbidders. ‘That would have cost $60,000 at primary level,” said art adviser Amir Shariat.
There was also the opportunity to realize gains even on works that might not have been the best examples of an artist’s output. Here’s Gleadell again:
Another highly-tipped winner, and another Italian too, was Domenico Gnoli whose sand painting in shades of brown,Inside of a Lady’s Shoe (1969), had been bought in 1993 for £67,500 ($92,149) and now carried an estimate of £1/1.5 million ($1.37/2.05 million). Not one of the artist’s punchier images, the work sold below estimates for £965,000 ($1,317,390), but represented a significant gain nonetheless.
For the big sale of the night, let’s turn back to Tully:
In the evening’s high point, Anselm Kiefer’s multilayered and wall-heavy 2004-2010 “Fur Velimer Khlebnikov: Die Lehre vorn Krieg Seeschlachten (For Velimer Khlebnikov: The Doctrines of War: Battles),” composed of paint, emulsion, shellac, and straw on canvas, plus a fantastic hand-crafted lead boat, went to a telephone bidder for an astounding £2,389,000 ($3.2 million), pulverizing its estimate of £400,000 to £600,000 ($528-792,000) and causing thunderous applause. In pounds, the sum brought by the work —formerly in the noted London collection of Fatimah and Eskandar Maleki — broke the £1,819,134 record set back in February 2008 by another Kiefer, but it fell short in dollar terms.
The stubborn blue-jeaned underbidder, seated in the salesroom, kept inserting himself back into the action. He was unknown to most observers and declined to identify himself, beyond saying that he’s Turkish and already owns “a number of Kiefers.” He noted that the price reached “was over the limit,” as he hurriedly exited the salesroom.
Finally, the looming question is the fate of guarantees—both direct and third party—on the market as it goes forward. Gleadell tallied the works with support in addition to the Gnoli:
Four other lots had third party guarantees, including three of the 10 most highly valued lots by Rudolf Stingel, Barbara Hepworth, and Gerhard Richter. The only in-house guarantee was on a 1975 painting by Sam Francis, Facing Within, estimated at £300/500,000 ($409,551/682.585), which didn’t sell and so now belongs to Phillips.
With Phillips Auction, Art Market Feels Effects of ‘Brexit’ (The New York Times)