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Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, strode up Park Avenue with two deputies in the gloaming of Wednesday afternoon. As they passed Phillips Auction house, Benioff noticed the crowds through the floor-to-ceiling windows and suggested to his companions that they go inside to look around.
As the tech pioneer emerged from the crowd, he was heard remarking to one of his aides that they ought to buy something. Perhaps not realizing the crowd was waiting to ascend the back stairs to attend an auction, Benioff and his pals were nowhere to be seen once the bidding began.
The anecdote is worth retelling for two reasons. The first is that it captures the signal fact that Phillips is getting noticed and being taken seriously. The second is that it illustrates how far Phillips—and the art market—has to go in getting many of the newly rich engaged in buying art.
Last night’s sale at Phillips marked the firm’s transition to becoming a peer of Sotheby’s and Christie’s at least in Contemporary art. The overall quality, price and results of the works in the evening and the day sales has changed substantially this season. Phillips is the only house to see its Evening sale total rise from $66m last year to $111m this year.
Artnews’s Nate Freeman quotes Phillips CEO Ed Dolman on this ambition:
“You know, I spent 30 years as the CEO of Christie’s, and I think, with Phillips, we’re now a serious competitor,” Dolman said. “And there’s nothing wrong with having three major houses.”
Dolman, who was CEO of Christie’s for about 10 years from December 1999 until 2010 when Steven Murphy was appointed CEO and Dolman became Chairman, was surely referring to his employment at Christie’s. But he was absolutely right about there being nothing wrong with having three major houses.
The thing is, having a third viable house multiplies the market equation in ways that are more complex than simple arithmetic. Auction house personnel have a competitiveness etched into them through many years of vying for the same goods from rich persons, their advisors or their estates. It may end up being hard for many to switch from playing a two-sided game to dealing with the new variations of an auction triangle.
Almost to underscore Phillips arrival in the second tier of the first rank, The New York Times focused on the house’s use of guarantees. With just about one third of sale employing direct or third-party guarantees, Phillips was following the same ratio as seen at Christie’s.
Their results also revealed a willingness to forego fees for a bid on at least one of the top lots:
The detail of the financial inducements Phillips used to wrest these eight-figure lots from Sotheby’s and Christie’s remains confidential, but the sellers of both the Richter and the Still had been guaranteed minimum prices backed by third parties. In all, 10 lots were guaranteed by third parties, with three more backed by the auction house itself. Phillips, in line with Sotheby’s and Christie’s, now releases a revised net price immediately after the sale if a lot has been bought by a third party who has been paid a fee. Richter’s “Düsenjäger,” at $25.6 million, deducted such a fee.
That’s not to say that all Phillips did. Henri Neuendorf of Artnet News had some of the narrative of the evening. Just behind the Richter in value was Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in Mirror which made $21.5m despite having once been damaged. Phillips took that aspect of the painting as a marketing challenge, which they seem to have overcome:
“There was a considerable amount of debate about the real value of that in the market because it had been slashed and sustained significant damage, which we thought made the picture more interesting,” Dolman said. “I think we marketed it extremely well and we got the full value out of the picture, which it deserves.”
(Dan Duray of The Art Newspaper saw Nicholas Acquavella bid for the work—from a skybox—and win.) Neuendorf also paid close attention during the several lots from Tommy Hilfiger that were on offer:
Andy Warhol’s Cowboy’s and Indians (1986), the first work from Hilfiger’s collection, a portfolio of 10 screenprints, exceeded its pre-sale high estimate, generating $394,000. Meanwhile Tico Mugrabi, who was accompanied by his father Jose, sparred with a telephone bidder for Hilfiger’s Keith Haring diptych Snake and Man; Dogs and Men (1983). As the bids increased, Mugrabi dropped out and was ultimately beaten by a telephone buyer who won the artwork to the tune of $1.1 million, just over its low estimate. Next, Hilfiger’s Jean-Michel Basquiat Untitled (Devil’s Head) (1987) squeaked by its low estimate, for $3.6 million.
On that Haring diptych, one of the bidders in the room who pushed pretty hard before getting surpassed by the telephone was celebrity chef Bobby Flay. As often happens in Phillips’s Park Avenue sales room, bidders like Flay struggled to get their bids seen and heard. Nate Freeman caught an example of that later in the evening. The frustration level was compounded in this case by the fact that the bidder was also struggling to make himself understood through his French accent:
the sale of George Condo’s large red painting Noble Woman (2009), which saw specialist Rebekah Bowling duking it out with a woman in the back, until Bowling hit $775,000 and the woman bidding in the room stalled. And then, suddenly, from the other side of the salesroom, French collector and dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski snapped his fingers loudly and started waving his hands, erupting with a bid for $800,000. When Bowling responding by announcing her client would see him that and raise him to $825,000, he muttered a series of profanities under his breath before shouting, “Thirty.”
“What was that?” responded the night’s gavel-wielder, evening sale head Henry Highley.
“I said, thir-teeee. Three-zero,” Sayegh-Belchatowski said in French-accented English.
“Ah, $830,000,” Highley responded. “Small jump.”
And, perhaps just washing her hands of the situation, Bowling declined to engage, and dropped out, giving the painting to Sayegh-Belchatowski.
“It’s a $5 million painting in two years,” the collector told me after the sale. “It’s fantastic. I get lucky to find one like these. And the red—mwah!”
Sayegh-Blechatowski was not the only buyer to feel he got a real steal, which is saying something in this market. Dan Duray spoke to another:
And there were deals to be had. “I didn’t even come here to buy Joe Bradley,” said a collector from the American Southwest, who asked not to be named and picked up the artist’s Frankenstein (2010) for a hammer price of $280,000 ($346,000 with fees), almost half its low estimate. Normally he collects Abstract Expressionism, “but then I saw the price and I said, ‘Wow!’ because I love Joe Bradley.”
Monet’s ‘Grainstack’ Sets Record With $81.4 Million at Auction (The New York Times)
Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Sale Was Solid (artnet News)
Phillips on an upswing with $111.2m 20th-century art sale (The Art Newspaper)