Still seeking growth, Phillips posted a 28% gain in Frieze Evening sale totals year over year.
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Phillips Frieze Evening Sale = £25.8m ($21.78m)
Ed Dolman was ebullient. “Up 28% over last year,” the Phillips CEO was exclaiming over the heads of a post-sale gaggle of journalists, his press team, security personnel and Cheyenne Westphal, his most senior business getter and specialist, with an unbridled air of relief.
The palpable sense of uncertainty, even dread, underlying the international art market in the days prior to the opening of Frieze Art Fair yesterday was dispelled by the strong results at both Christie’s Lancaster single-owner sale and Phillips strong £25.8m showing last night.
Although these sales represent low volume by the standards of the international art market, they have shown a depth of global bidding and consigning. Westphal told journalists that a surprising number of the evening’s consignors were from the US. Both Dolman and Westphal remarked upon the strength of consigning from clients in Asia to these London sales. They hinted too that Asian buyers remained a potent force in the market.
Sale room observers were able to see confirmation of the bidding from Asian advisors, including one who underbid works by Derek Fordjour and Sanya Kantarovsky only to go all the way on a Gerhard Richter abstract. That green Richter made a final price of £1.695m. It had been traded on the private art market like a bearer bond with had 11 owners in the last 25 year. That works out to finding a new owner every two years on average.
If the small 2 x 3 foot painting had been burned at all by its promiscuity, the results didn’t show it. The first auction sale of the painting established a hammer price, £1.4m, which was twice the low estimate.
There is some reason to suspect the Asian buyer of the Richter, who was seated in the audience carelessly flashing his caller ID, was representing a K-Pop star recently featured in ARTnews’s Top 200.
Along with the Richter, there was excitement surrounding the £3.375m sale of Alex Katz’s Blue Umbrella 1. A larger version of the painting had set a record for Katz nearly 20 years ago. That record lasted some time showing the slow evolution of Katz’s market. In fact, despite the conservative estimate and the consignor having turned down a few pre-sale guarantees in the healthy seven-figure range, Dolman confessed that the entire staff watched in some amazement as bidders added an additional million pounds to the selling price. The final £2.8m hammer was more than twice the £1.2m high estimate and a solid million more than what the internal ‘will make’ expectations had pegged pre-sale.
Aside from the Katz and Richter, there were two other important features to Phillips sale. Unlike their competitors, Phillips had a substantial number of third-party guarantees in this sale, 18 out of 43 lots or 41% of the lots. Remarkably, the Phillips staff could only identify one of those works that ultimately went to the guarantor even though several of the works were auctioned off at compromise prices to their estimates.
With so much talk in the art press of burned guarantors who got stuck with paintings they never wanted, it is significant that Phillips was able to place so many works and that there were bidders willing to exceed the guarantees.
That leads us to the final aspect of the sale. Phillips organized a run of seven paintings by artists with very tight primary markets to create an arbitrage between the waiting lists and ready money. Simone Leigh, Nathanial Mary Quinn, Derek Fordjour, Sanya Kantaravsky and Tschabalala Self all opened the sale with works bearing low estimates of £30-40k. Each of these works sold for prices of £137.5k to £275k.
Phillips hooked a Tomoo Gokita work onto the train to get a near high estimate final bid and the first guaranteed work of the night, a George Condo work on paper, came up the caboose to best its £350k high estimate. It was only at the eighth lot of the sale that bidders offered up real resistance and caused a Mark Grotjahn ‘butterfly’ work to be bought in, one of only two works in the sale that failed. That setback couldn’t dampen the mood that the run of early works had already established for the sale.
If there was a market shift worth noting it might be that although two works by KAWS sold during the evening, both carrying the same estimate, one made exactly the low estimate and the other exactly the high estimate. Even Jose Mugrabi pushing the large wooden Companion figure (from an edition of 5) couldn’t get it to break out into a different price register.
Colin Gleadell points out in his report that even though the sales did well, there is evidence of softness in certain artists’ markets:
An Anish Kapoor, bought in 2013 for £1.14 million ($1.7 million), was back with a £500,000 low estimate and sold for £569,000 ($700,000). And a Joe Bradley painting that cost $708,000 in 2017 was on the block with a £300,000 ($370,000) low estimate and sold for £399,000 ($491,000).
Sales are sales nonetheless. Works that trade hands for lower prices may cause some buyers losses and some artists or their dealers embarrassment; but the sales themselves are good evidence of functioning markets and persistent value. Getting some of your money out of a work of art is an achievement greater than never being able to recoup any of the money spent.
The final total of this sale confirmed what Phillips had hoped: there is a persistent international market for mid-level contemporary works (recent painters and stretching back mostly just 30 years with an exception here and there for a work from the 1970s.