The first night of New York’s May auctions wrapped up with a modest 20th-century and contemporary art sale at Phillips. The house hammered down $39.3 million total (without buyers’ premium), below a presale estimate of $40.85 million to $60.95 million (calculated sans premium). Still, collectors and Phillips staff were reassured by the results, and a very respectable 34 out of the 37 lots sold. With premium, the house took in $46.6 million.

“I was pleasantly surprised, because I was really thinking that this entire week was going to be under some pressure because of all the global headwinds, all of the issues happening overseas with the economy,” said collector Helly Nahmad, strolling west on 57th Street after the auction. “I was very happy to see collectors were bidding and that they were excited to bid on things they wanted.”

Most wanted was Brice Marden’s Star (for Patti Smith), 1972–74, the top lot of the evening, which sold for $5.99 million (all figures include premium), within its low-end estimate of $5 million. The work, like most of the sale’s top lots, went to a phone bidder.

The night’s sleeper success was Mark Bradford’s Mixed Signals (2009), which soared above its presale estimate of $1 million and $1.5 million, hammering down for $2.5 million to a bidder seated in the front row. It was a strong night for Bradford, who painted two of the sale’s top five lots. Bradford’s Building “The Big White Whale”(2012) hammered for $3.53 million, or $3 million without premium, which was its low-end estimate, going to a buyer represented by Phillips’s head of contemporary art, Peter Sumner.

Everyone swooned over Jean Dubuffet’s Barbe des rites (1959), one of only four works to sell for more than its presale high estimate. Blake Koh, a former Sotheby’s specialist brand new to the Phillips team, represented a client on the phone, bidding against dealer Dominique Lévy, who has spaces in New York, London, and Geneva. When the volley pinged up to $2 million, Lévy dropped out, leaving Hugues Joffre, chairman of U.K. and Europe and worldwide head of 20th-century art, to bid against Koh. After a protracted back and forth, during which the price inched up by increments as low as $20,000, the work finally sold to Joffre for $3.08 million. (For those left lusting after the dark-gray painting of a bearded man, the current exhibition at Acquavella Galleries includes its sister piece, on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.)

Twenty of the lots carried guarantees, a significantly higher percentage than the contemporary sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s this week. Naked (1988), Jeff Koons’s scaled-up porcelain tchochke, which sold for it’s low-end estimate of $5 million, went to its guarantor, according to Phillips chairman and CEO, Edward Dolman. (The other top lots of the evening did not, he said after the sale.) Bidding on that work opened at $3.8 million and climbed gradually up to its selling price, going to a client represented by “Auggie” as auctioneer affectionately referred to Phillips worldwide co-head August O. Uribe.

Two auction records were set, one for Günther Förg at $815,000 and the other for Takeo Yamaguchi at $509,000.
Like the Christie’s sale earlier in the evening, the Phillips auction was a streamlined affair, with only 38 lots listed, one of which was withdrawn. The market “chaos” in January, February, and March “made the gathering for these sales a little bit more difficult than usual,” said Dolman at a press conference following the sale.

“I think you’re going to see smaller sales totals across the board, and that I think was driven by consignment reluctance at the beginning of the year,” he continued. The sale saw more robust international bidding, however, than in previous years.

Despite the dearth of commissions, attendees spoke positively about the evening’s sale.

“I think both sales were very solid,” said auctioneer Simon de Pury (who was once a partner in the house but was simply sitting in the audience tonight), echoing others’ relief at the stability of the opening night.

“It was a good start to the week,” agreed collector Michael Shvo. “There’s less product right now on the market…but the good stuff sold. It sold well, the Mark Bradford sold well, and the other stuff that shouldn’t sell didn’t sell.”