This report with the backstory on auction newcomers Salman Toor and Portia Zvavhera, two of the evening's best performers, as well as the sellers of the Baselitz, Warhol, Hirst and Tillmans, 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.)
Sales may not have been as buoyant at this year’s Frieze hybrid live-online art fair in London as they were last year, but the accompanying auctions could keep the ball afloat better than most would have expected. Discounting Christie’s single-owner sale from the estate of Jeremy Lancaster, the pre-sale low estimate for the evening and day contemporary art sales staged by Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips and Bonhams last October was £173.2 million. This week, where there are no single owner collections, that estimate is £172.4 million (which could go down if more lots are withdrawn). So the auctioneers have done well to bring the goods in and with relatively few guarantees at time of writing. All that remained to be seen was if vendor’s confidence could be justified.
Phillips’ was first out of the block today and turned in a £26.3 million ($34 million) contemporary art sale today, against an estimate of £21.7 million-£30 million for 36 lots, of which 10 were guaranteed, with a combined low estimate of £8.9 million or around 40% of the low estimate for the whole sale. The equivalent sale last year contained 42 lots, realizing a mid-estimate £25.8 million, including premium, with 60 % of the £17 million low estimate under guarantee.
So much for the basic stats which indicate the market, at first glance, looks to be holding up ok. Now for some details, some of which you won’t find in the catalogue. This was a sale of two different markets— the red hot and the cool, with some lukewarm results in the middle where artists have hit their peak and are treading water.
The sale had started somewhat experimentally, though not for those with their noses to the ground. Alien Shores (2018) was only the seventh work by Emily Mae Smith to come to auction; the first was at Phillips in New York in 2015, since when the market for her colorful, surrealistic paintings has taken off. In July, Christie’s hit a record $187,000, but today Phillips went a few stages better selling Alien Shores for a new record £277,200. 18 bidders vied for the work including a phone bidder from Hong Kong who was the underbidder. Kate Bryan of Phillips said in a post sale press conference that Smith’s style “hits all the right notes for buyers and her work is impossible for most to buy on the primary market.” Sounds familiar.
This was followed by the first work at auction by Pakistani-born, New York-based figurative painter of queer subject matter, Salman Toor, who was recently signed up by Luhring Augustine and earmarked for a show at the Whitney Museum in New York in a few weeks. When first shown at the Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai in 2012, his old masterly painting, Ashiana, 2012, was priced at around $5,000 but now carried an estimate at Phillips of £30,000-£50,000. Before he arrived in New York c.2015, Toor was a hit back home with major collectors like Kiran Nadar and Taimur Hasan. Swiftly attracting a following (and some speculators) in the west where he was freer to express his sexual leanings, he sold out in a mixed exhibition at London’s Grosvenor gallery in June where prices ranged from $20,000-$25,000. According to one source close to the artist, the contents of his Whitney show has already sold out to museum benefactors. Which accounted for the competition tonight when this relatively conservative painting still sold for a double estimate record £138,600 to an online bidder from Hong Kong.
Continuing to mine the market for rising new art stars, Phillips moved on with the second work by Zimbabwean artist, Portia Zvavahera, to come to auction, and the first outside South Africa. With a current exhibition of new work at David Zwirner’s London gallery having sold out at prices between $80,000 and $100,000 (with one on reserve for a museum) the spiritually surreal painting, Arising from the Unknown, 2019, acquired from Andrew Kreps’s New York show which closed last December, was always going to attract attention with a £40,000 to £60,000 estimate and attracted bids from everywhere globally including Taiwan and the Netherlands online before selling for a new benchmark £163,800. Then, inevitably, came Titus Kaphar, who hit a record $854,900 earlier this month and currently has his first show with Gagosian in New York. At the sale, his sizable 2016 panel, Alternate Endings– with its familiar use of a blanked out, silhouetted figure, was estimated at a comparatively reasonable £40,000-60,000 and attracted 16 registered bidders before selling for £466,200.
Ghanaian-born Oregon-based painter, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe saw a high result. In June, Phillips scored a ten times estimate record $250,000 for Quaicoe’s 4 foot portrait, Shades of Black, 2018, so were clear favourites to handle the similarly sized Black Stripes on White, 2019, which had been bought fresh off the easel, direct from the artist last year. The eye-catching painting had a relatively modest £20,000-30,000 estimate and attracted bids from Hong Kong before selling to a bidder from Japan for £94,500.
This opening, speculative group would not have been complete without a work by Swiss artist, Nicolas Party, who was signed up by Hauser & Wirth last year and whose auction record hit $1 million in Hong Kong shortly afterwards. Phillips had one of his many large pastels of rocks, dated 2014, before the goldrush began, and estimated it at £400,000-£600,000, equal to the highest estimate yet placed on his work in the record breaking Hong Kong sale. But maybe the trajectory of the Party market is slowing. This work sold within estimate for £603,300 without the hullabaloo of bids that met the earlier lots.
Not to be left out of the bidding party was British street artist Banksy. A double sided (part print, part unique work) triggered a three-way phone battle before hitting a double estimate £1.2 million. There are apparently eight versions of this, and this was the first example to be auctioned. Hold tight for the next one.
The most newsworthy lot (for obvious reasons) was an irreverent and slightly unflattering 2017 Dana Schutz painting of Donald Trump standing precariously on an escalator at the time when he was announcing his presidential bid. The seller bought it from Petzel Gallery in New York the year it was painted when it was priced at $200,000 and presumably thought it would be fun to sell in the run up to this presidential election – during Schutz’ first London show at Thomas Dane, and with some strong auction prices hitting a record $2.4 million last year. Now estimated at an improved £350,000-£580,000 the Trump painting attracted online bidding from Texas (where else) but failed to make a headline selling within estimate for £688,000.
After this energy charged opening, though, and while the sale moved into higher price brackets, bidding proved scarcer. A monumental 1982 inverted/upside-down self-portrait by Georg Baselitz, Das letzte Selbstbildnis I, from the much respected collection of Frenchman, Marcel Brient, carried the third highest estimate ever for Baselitz at £4.7 million-£6 million. In the past, Brient has generally selected the big two to sell through. In 2012 he sold 78 lots for over € 5 million at Sotheby’s in Paris. But two years ago, he followed the drift of expertise heading towards Phillips (clearly a Cheyenne Westphal fan) and sold a Kippenberger there for £8.4 million— the fifth highest price for the artist, according to Artnet. The Baselitz, therefore, underlined Phillips’ intention to compete at the higher levels. It was obtained without a guarantee, but attracted little competition to sell below estimate for £4.9 million. “That’s the third highest price for Baselitz” chirped Westphal post sale. “The estimate was in line with previous examples, but we didn’t get the competition we’d hoped for.”
With this, the pace slowed down noticeably with some major lots by Keith Haring, Yoshitomo Nara, Basquiat, George Matthieu, Joan Mitchell and Hurvin Anderson— all guaranteed, but selling below the estimate and all to paddle 1069, perhaps a metaphor for Phillips’ Russian owners who had guaranteed them. Anderson’s 2005 painting Marlene’s, incidentally, was returning to auction after being bought by a Russian client at Sotheby’s two years ago for £394,000. Perhaps not an obviously commercial example of his work, it sold below estimate for £252,000.
Most of the top lots had been sourced from outside Europe, carrying a temporary import tax. With no great Warhols for sale at Sotheby’s or Christie’s this week, Phillips had something to brag about with a 24 inch painting titled Flowers from 1964 with a £1.4 million-1.8 million estimate. The painting was last out in May 2018 when it sold to New York dealer, David Benrimon near the low estimate for $2.1 million, and now, with a virtually unchanged estimate and no guarantee it made a virtually unchanged £1.6 million.
As with Banksy and Anderson, British art played a mixed role. A 2017 abstract, Somebody’s Angel, by Sean Scully, now, after a bit of gallery hopping, represented by Thaddaeus Ropac, brought an above estimate £1 million from a bullish commission bid. That’s among the artist’s top ten auction prices and one wonders how near their limit that winning bid was.
Coming from a French collection was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 2011 painting, Luminary, last at auction in 2016 when it sold above estimate for £86,000. In 2018 it was shown as part of the Frances Foundation collection, an extensive 600 work collection in northern France which, though not identified by Phillips, appears to have been the seller. With growing interest in African diaspora artists, rising prices for British based Boakye’s work in the salerooms and an exhibition lined up at Tate, this work was now estimated £250,000-£450,000. But perhaps her market has already plateaued, and Luminary sold on the low estimate for £315,000.
Another seller not mentioned in the Phillips catalogue and described, not incorrectly, as ’an Important European Collection’, was Enrique Ordonez and Isabel Falcon of the Falcon collection which gave some 1,000 photographs from their collection recently to Tenerife’s Esprit de las Artes valued at Euros 8 million. Today, though, they were offering for sale Wolfgang Tillmans’ unique cameraless photograph, Freischwimmer 27, from the artist’s most commercially successful series with a £210,000-300,000 estimate. Three years ago, Phillips put a similar estimate on another work from the same series and were rewarded with a £605,000 record price. This time, however, the Tillmans market too appeared to have plateaued and the work went unsold.
Top British work going into the sale was a 2005 six-foot steel cabinet full of paracetamol pain killers with touches of animal blood by Damien Hirst. Entitled ‘The Body of Christ’, it was shown in a highly successful one man show, The Death of God, in 2006, at the Galería Hilario Galguera, Mexico City, which sold it for $760,000 to Jorge Vergara, the founder of health products business Omnilife. Vergara’s name is not mentioned in the auction catalogue, but sadly he died last year, and this work was sent to auction.
The Hirst market has been showing signs of revival since it plummeted after his one-man sale at Sotheby’s in 2008, and Phillips estimated the work to regain Vergara’s outlay at £800,000 to £1.2 million. Art advisor Nicolai Frahm, however, voiced his unease about this revival before the sale, and sure enough the Hirst was withdrawn – a sign of lack of interest that price. More Hirst works are appearing during the week which could qualify Frahm’s reserve. We shall see.
After the sale, Phillips Chairman Ed Dolman, ever the diplomat, thought the sale ‘delivered a message of strength’, and was ‘a good harbinger for the rest of the week.’ Yes, perhaps, but with some qualifications.