The £30m in Contemporary art sales that took place at Phillips and Bonhams yesterday may have been a product of Christie’s leaving the door open to its third and fourth place competitors. Or it may have been a sign that the Contemporary art market’s growth is enabling other auction houses to become a factor.
One thing is clear, though, none of this happens without the firms being willing to invest their own money in providing guarantees and crossing that risk with support from third parties. Both Phillips and Bonhams, to differing degrees, have proved that axiom.
Their success, in turn, proves that we’ve crossed into a new model of art sales that is neither public nor private but a hybrid of both. The sales process takes place in three stages. Effectively, a consignor with desirable property holds an auction of their work among the four houses. Once their guarantees and terms have been set, the auction house holds a private auction between potential third-party guarantors. Finally, with validation provided by the guarantees, the auction house presents the work to the public to see if anyone is willing to bid higher.
The positive side of this process is that prices are reinforced with verified pledges of interest which should reassure buyers even if it causes a non-comprehending press to spin dark theories of manipulation. The down side, if you’re running an auction house is that your business requires access to a much bigger balance sheet.
Just listen to Phillips’s CEO, Edward Dolman who told the press after his £24.373m sale,
“The problem is you’re dead if you can’t offer guarantees,” said Dolman.
Bonhams, which has never previously factored in these sales in New York or London guaranteed 7 lots with third-party backing that accounted for three quarters of their sale’s total, as Colin Gleadell points out on artnet News:
Average prices at Bonhams contemporary art sales have increased from £8,000 to £100,000 in the last four years, they tell me. Today the low estimate was £4.7 million ($6.1 million) for 39 lots. They took £7.1 million ($9.2 million) in the end, which is probably their best ever for contemporary art.
The guarantees also provide access to buyers as the results show:
The ace in the pack was Mark Bradford’s Dream Deferral (2009), which the seller bought at Christie’s in 2015 for £902,500. It sold to the Mnuchin Gallery for £1,565,000 ($2,000,000).
Another guaranteed lot which attracted competitive bidding was an untitled 1988 work by Rudolf Stingel which saw bidding from dealers Brian Balfour-Oats and Paolo Vedovi before selling for £461,000 ($600,000), double its estimate. The painting last sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for £242,500.
Mnuchin, Vedovi are not regular buyers at Bonhams but their presence gives the auction house a better shot at winning consignments as long as they can arrange the backing.
At Phillips, successive increases in sales volume and market share have been the focus of the media’s coverage of the house. With Christie’s absence from this sales cycle, the house has had a lot of fun touting its artificially high market share of 28%. But the results reveal something more consequential taking place. We’ll get to that below. First, let’s look at some of the coverage.
While one of the Vedovi brothers was bidding at Bonhams, he was also selling at Phillips with a guarantee. The quick flip didn’t amount to much but at least the Belgian dealer was able to cover his costs with or without the guarantee, according to Gleadell:
A 2007 striped painting by Rudolf Stingel had been bought in 2015 for $1.4 million by dealer Paolo Vedovi. Back on the block with a guarantee, it sold on a single bid for £1.56 million ($2 million).
The Art Newspaper’s Anny Shaw button-holed the buyer of a Hirst spot painting at Phillips who is predicting a comeback for the artist:
Even Damien Hirst, whose market has looked shaky, came out on top. A spot painting executed in 2007 sold for £360,000 (£437,000 with fees; est £250,000-£350,000) to the New York-based adviser Ronald Harrar, who was bidding on behalf of a client. “Hirst’s market is on the rebound; we are betting on him,” Harrar said.
Shaw also noticed that Phillips was making a big deal of Asian bidding:
Bidding from Asia was strong, particularly in Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, according to Phillips. One Japanese collector bidding online at 4am local time snapped up the two paintings by Jonas Wood on the block. “Japanese bidding is more significant now, and it’s not just one person,” Dolman said. “The arrival of new Japanese bidding into the middle market is having a real impact.”
Judd Tully picked up on something a little odder in the tone of the sale when it came to the house’s treatment of Japan. Here’s his version:
Jonas Wood’s 89 by 105 inch composition, “Head Up” from 2013, depicting a high-stakes poker game sold to a Japanese online bidder for £317,000/$408,930 (est. 200-300,000). One can’t help to speculate, without a hint of attribution, that the buyer could be the Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa who bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” work from 1982 at Sotheby’s New York in May for a record $110.5 million.
The same online bidder (paddle #7020), referred by auctioneer and head of sale Henry Highley as “our friend in Japan,” came back at the end of the sale to nab Wood’s geometric themed and Malevich influenced composition, “Untitled (Red and Black)” from 2009 that made £137,000/$176,730 (est. 80-120,000).
Highley’s over-emphasis certainly came across as a stage wink intimating that Maezawa was the bidder. It is unclear why he would do such a thing whether the buyer was Maezawa or not.
Tully puts his finger on something more significant about these sales. Phillips had at least three works in the sale that went head-to-head with Sotheby’s and seemed to out perform. One was the Hirst spot painting mentioned above. Although Sotheby’s very good spot painting sold for something like 50% more (£668k v £437k) it was also three times the size. Size isn’t everything with spots. But still Phillips can legitimately say they held their own on that face-off.
There were also the two Albert Oehlen “computer paintings” at Sotheby’s and Phillips. Again, the works have a number of differences including size and date. Sotheby’s later work from 2002 made £668k, signficantly above the estimates. But Phillips 1997 work also outperformed but to the tune of £2.165m.
Finally, the two houses had similar works by Tillmans. Sotheby’s was proud to have set a record with theirs. But Phillips followed up with an even stronger sale:
Wolfgang Tillman’s large-scale abstraction, “Freischwimmer #84” from 2004, a c-print in artist’s frame from an edition of one plus one artist’s proof and scaled at 94 by 71 ¼ inches, went for a record £605,000/$780,450 after a five minute bidding battle between numerous contenders (est. 200-300,000).
Another similarly scaled Tillmans, “Freischwimmer #81” from 2005 sold at Sotheby’s Wednesday evening for £500,750/$641,010.
Phillips’ example last sold at Phillips’ London in October 2012 for £39,650.
Phillips’ Strong Closer (Judd Tully)