Jitters, few jolts at Phillips’s 20th century & contemporary evening sale in London

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If the superstitions surrounding the date were not enough to unnerve the salesroom at Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary evening sale in London this Friday the 13th, the mixed results at Sotheby’s twin contemporary evening salethe night before certainly were. The mood grew even tenser after Phillips announced early on that six lots had been withdrawn, including two whose estimates had been among the highest in the auction.

The remaining lots went on to fetch a hammer total of nearly £14.5m, slightly above the revised presale estimate of £13.9m, after 38 of 40 works (95%) found buyers. The sale brought in £18.3m with fees, not far off the premium-inclusive £18.7m accrued in the equivalent sale during Frieze Week of 2022.

But the results look shakier when contextualised with the six withdrawals. Topping the list were Lucio Fontana’s 1964-65 slashed canvas Concetto spaziale, Attese (est £1.4m-£1.8m) and Jean Dubuffet’s 1975 painting Lieu Rouge au Château (est £700,000-£1m). The withdrawn sextet’s combined low estimate was £3.7m, meaning the £14.5m hammer total fell short of the sale’s original £17.6m low estimate by 17.6%. Counting the six withdrawn lots along with the sale’s two passed lots would also reduce the sell-through rate to a solid but unspectacular 83%.

Still, there were enough bright spots to dispel any real darkness. Ultra-contemporary works prompted some of the liveliest bidding of the “evening” (the sale’s actual start time was 3pm). Notably, The Bath in Holy River (2021) by the recent Royal College of Art MFA graduate Raghav Babbar, hammered at £360,000 (£457,200 with fees), more than ten times its low estimate of £30,000.

British artists Francesca Mollett and Michaela Yearwood-Dan were highly in demand, too. Mollett’s Two Thistles (2021) was knocked down at £200,000 against a £25,000 to £35,000 estimate; with fees, the £254,00 result leapt almost two and a half times higher than her previous auction record (£81,900). Yearwood-Dan’s The Summit of Beauty and Love (2020) hammered at £180,000, triple its £60,000 low estimate, reaching £228,600 with fees.

But not every ultra-contemporary artist soared. A 2020 canvas by Christina Quarles, the subject of the inaugural solo show at Pilar Corrias’s new Cork Street space this week, hammered £400,000 (£508,000 with fees), just shy of its £450,000 lower estimate. For comparison, Hauser & Wirth had priced the artist’s new paintings as high as $1.2m in her New York solo show in 2022.

RLuc Tuymans, Rome (2007). Courtesy of Phillips.

More established auction names did just enough when needed. The top lot of the event, Banksy’s Forgive us Our Trespassing (2011), hammered at its lower estimate of £2.2m (£2.7m with fees). Luc Tuyman’s Rome (2007) also sold right at its lower estimate of £1.2m (£1.5m with fees). Cy Twombly’s Untitled, an assemblage from 1973, hammered at £720,000 (£914,00 with fees) against an £800,000 lower estimate. Anish Kapoor’s untitled 2012 copper alloy wall sculpture, which gleamed at the back of the saleroom, crawled over its £600,000 lower estimate to sell for £650,000 (£825,00 with fees).

Among the more disheartening results of the auction were the two passes: Autoportret II, a small bronzeby Alina Szapocznikow that carried a £250,000 to £350,000 estimate, and a 1977 pencil study on paper by Balthus with a £280,000 to £400,000 presale expectation.

Nevertheless, Olivia Thornton, Phillips’s head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art in Europe, said in a post-sale statement that the auction house was “proud of tonight’s robust result”, adding: “London truly stands as the vibrant crossroads of the global art market, drawing strong participation from Asia, the US, and Europe”. The auction attracted bidding from more than 35 countries, according to a house spokesperson.

Whilst the sale, at times, felt slow and bidding relatively shallow, there were smiles on the faces of bidders and no disasters, providing at least modest reassurance in uncertain times.

The day prior, Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary day sale brought in £7.1m (with fees), against a presale estimate of £6.9m to £10m. The auction set new records for three artists: Elitsa Ritsova, whose Twirls and Twine (2020) sold for £512,400 (with fees), more than 34 times its £15,000 low estimate; Alfie Caine, whose Midday Sun (2020) racked up £88,900 (with fees), more than seven times its low expectation of £12,000; and Celeste Rapone, whose Fold soldfor £76,200 (with fees), nearly four times its presale low estimate of £20,000.

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