This report on the Phillips’s market re-opening Evening sale in July 2020 by Colin Gleadell is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Some things don’t change, even in a pandemic. As ever, Phillips piled into the contemporary art auction season last week with the smallest sale, the greatest emphasis on younger, up-and-coming artists, and the largest percentage of guarantees.
The success and record prices for the newer artists has already been listed by AMM (July 2), but what about the rest? With its niche position at the cutting edge, Phillips has experienced some reluctance by sellers to part with higher value blue chip and historic 20th century art. Chairman Ed Dolman has always said it was necessary for Phillips to extend guarantees to sellers to get high value property in for sale and so compete with the ruling duopoly. In this sale 12 works were guaranteed (i.e., half the lots), though not the hot young artists, with a combined low estimate of $24.4 million. That’s 84.3% of the low estimate value for the whole sale which was $29.4 million. This guarantee percentage is high by any standards for a mixed owner sale. Regardless of how profitable or not the sale will have been (the total hammer price of the guaranteed lots was $24.8 million and Dolman said he was happy with the results), it helps to explain how they achieved their $41 million ‘white glove sale.’ (Unless otherwise stated, estimates do not include the buyer’s premium, but sold prices do).
Away from the bullish prices paid for relative newcomers Titus Kaphar, Matthew Wong, Amoako Boafo et al, the market was showing signs of restraint. Banksy’s unique painting, Monkey Poison, 2004, had a hefty $1.8/2.5 million estimate and sold on the low estimate to a solitary bid, presumably on behalf of Phillips which guaranteed the painting, from Miety Heiden to bring $2 million – the second highest auction price on record for Banksy. Certainly, it lacked that element of surprise which often accompanies his work as Phillips had exhibited it in a Banksy exhibition staged in Hong Kong in 2018 and then New York early this year. Phillips gave no owner description or exhibition history, but it is known that these exhibitions were from the collection of Lionel and Kim Logchies who have a gallery in Amsterdam (Lionel Gallery). Monkey Poison was in those exhibitions with a price of ~$2 million but not sold. At the auction it appeared to sell without competition to the guarantor—Phillips again. “This was the right price for the work,” commented London Banksy dealer, Acoris Andipa, reassuringly. “It’s good to see a sensible price relative to the artwork instead of an unrealistic price just because it’s a Banksy.”
Phillips recent move into early 20th century art was low key. Francis Picabia’s dreamy portrait of a young woman, painted 1941-2, was one of only three pre-1950 works in the sale. No one has ever established who she is. In 2007 she came up for auction in Paris and was bought by Aristophil, an investment project that amassed a huge collection of artist’s letters and manuscripts, as well as a few paintings. It was thought that Aristophil’s Picabia manuscripts might reveal her identity, but they never did. Lately, however, Aristophil went bankrupt and had to sell out. Among its sales last year in Paris, was this mysterious young lady who reaped Aristophil’s investors some profit selling for a 6 x estimate $306,000. The estimate had been set low because of Aristophil’s circumstances. The buyer, though, experienced a loss last week as it sold at Phillips for a hammer price of $280,000 ($350,000 with the buyers’ premium charge).
A later casting of a 1930 bronze by one of Picasso’s favoured artists, Julio González, and the bizarre inclusion of a 1921 work by Maxfield Parrish on the grounds that it had surreal overtones, made up the early 20th century trio.
Phillips did, however, tap into the revival of interest in second generation female Abstract Expressionists. Joan Mitchell’s Noël, 1961-2, was guaranteed by Phillips and went to an ‘important collector’, according to Ed Dolman, after it sold on the low estimate for a premium inclusive $11.1 million. There was more competition for Helen Frankenthaler’s gloriously breezy, color-saturated Head of the Meadow, 1967, which tripled estimates to sell for $3 million—the most successful sale of the evening perhaps because it was not guaranteed. This painting was mistakenly reported elsewhere as consigned by the estate of the late crooner, Andy Williams, but it wasn’t. The seller in fact acquired it at the Andy Williams estate auction staged by Christie’s in 2013 above the estimate for $543,500. It was a good punt, and clever of them not only to sell now, but to get Phillips to promote the celebrity attachment in the headline as ‘Formerly in the Andy Williams Collection’ as opposed to something like ‘property of a clever dealer.’
Phillips was also discreet about not naming the seller of Thomas Struth’s large editioned Cibachrome print of Notre-Dame, Paris, 2000. Designated simply as the ‘Property from an Esteemed Private Collection’, the print had toured Japan in 2014-15 as part of the Yageo Foundation Collection which belongs to the well-known Taiwanese electronics billionaire collector, Pierre Chen, who also extracted a guarantee from Phillips. The sale had a topical edge to it as the famous building overcomes disaster and waits to return to its former glory. But the bidding was muted, and it sold just above the low estimate for $420,000. Other editions of this print have sold for around the $500,000 mark in the last 15 years.
Among the few works returning to the auction market and displaying a slight fall off in price was a luminous, 1991 turquoise aluminum wall box by Donald Judd. It was not as interesting as the early 1962 work at Sotheby’s on Monday, but it was what an average collector would want as an instantly recognizable and easily installable Judd. The artist’s market was set for a roll this year with the now postponed retrospective at MoMA. The early piece at Sotheby’s made the third highest price for the artist at an above estimate $9.8 million – though some thought it would make more. This later, smaller work at Phillips was bought in November 2017 above estimate for $732,500, perhaps in the hope that the retrospective would see a lift in prices. But it sold for slightly less at $680,000, most likely to the third-party guarantor who had come in at the last minute. Curiously, this late third party guarantee caused Phillips to raise the published estimate by $50,000 before the auction, presumably signifying that the third party had outbid Phillips’ original guarantee.
Phillips’ second top lot, Basquiat’s large 1987 work on paper, Victor 25448, was also returning to auction, guaranteed by Phillips, after it was bought during the 2008 downturn below estimate for $3.5 million (The underbidder then was Anne-Gaelle van de Weghe, wife of Manhattan and currently East Hampton gallerist, Christophe van de Weghe). Now back with an $8-12 million estimate it sold to a single bid on the low estimate for $9.2 million. If that was made by Phillips, they will be popular with mega-collector Agnes Gund and her fellow art loving trustees of the charity Art for Justice, to which a portion of the proceeds are promised.
Overall, Phillips can feel pleased with the upbeat elements of the sale but also relieved that there was no sharp downturn in prices; the high level of guarantees insured against that.