Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Sale in London Achieves Tepid Results

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Phillips found a spot sandwiched between Sotheby’s and Christie’s to stage a mid-afternoon part-one sale of 20th century and contemporary art on Friday (October 13).

After six lots had been withdrawn, 40 lots were sold and two went unsold against a pre-sale estimate of £13.9 million– £19.2 million (or $16.9 million- $23.3 million). The auction realized £18.3 million ($22.4 million)—much on a par with last October’s Frieze week sale by the house.

Although that looks comfortable, scanning the top lot results makes for grim reading. Two of the pre-sale top 10 lots—a white-slashed Lucio Fontana (1964-65), estimated at £1.4 million- £1.8 million, and a 1975 Dubuffet, (1976), with a £700,000 to £1 million estimate—were withdrawn due to lack of presale interest, Phillips said. The top selling lots, a Banksy mural, (2011), and Luc Tuymans’ (2007), were guaranteed and sold on or below their low estimates at £2.7 million ($3.3 million) and £1.5 million ($1.8 million) respectively, the former courtesy of a bid from an Asian guarantor. (Sale prices include the buyer’s premium charge, estimates do not).

Anish Kapoor (2012). Courtesy Phillips

Of the rest, all bar one of the top lots sold below estimate and some at a loss to their owners. Anish Kapoor’s copper alloy disc, (2012), while hitting a mid-estimate £825,000 ($1 million), made considerably less than the $1.8 million it was bought for in 2014. Also, an unnamed “esteemed private collector” who bought a late, 1952 casting of a Matisse bronze, (1909-10), in 2007 for $2.2 million sold it now for only £660,400, or $806,480. They lost less on a Cy Twombly paper collage, (1974), which they bought, also in 2007, for £311,000, and sold at Phillips on the low estimate for £190,500 ($230,962).

Henri Matisse, . Courtesy Phillips

Such losses were probably not apparent to most observers who had been swept along with some high-octane bidding amongst the opening lots. Here, a painting of a windowless room by red-hot Mohammed Sami called (2018), sold for a double estimate for £228,600 ($277,154). (2018), a surreal paining by Stefanie Heinze—who had only made her auction debut the day before at Sotheby’s—was chased by an online bidder from Japan and by U.S. collector Max Dolciger in the room, before selling to Japan also for a double estimate £165,100 ($200,167).

Bidders from Japan, Hong Kong and New York then all competed for young British artist Emma Webster’s cloud filled landscape, (2020), which likewise doubled estimates to sell for £228,600 ($277,154). But none excited as much competition as the van Gogh-influenced Two Thistles (2021) by Francesca Mollet. Estimated at £25,000- £35,000,  the work was chased by Dolciger again, who was joined by bidders from Michigan and Japan, before selling to a London phone bidder for a record £254,500 ($297,643).

Cy Twombly, (1974). Courtesy Phillips

Strong bidding continued to play out for the strongest images by figurative Scottish painter Caroline Walker, whose shop window, (2019), saw competition between New York and Japan before falling to a young bidder in the room for a triple estimate £565,150 ($685,187). Summer rumors that Walker’s market was in decline proved unfounded.

Another saleroom phenomenon was Indian figurative painter Raghav Babbar, who has enjoyed a sell-out exhibition recently at Nahmad Projects in London. The few works that have emerged in auction have all flown above estimate and the latest, (2021), was no exception: two telephone bidders carried the price over the £30,000 low estimate to a £457,500 ($554,672).

On the downside, we have got used to Damien Hirst underperforming at auction, though he still has his fans. At Phillips his classical looking (2011) from was picked up by a Chinese buyer below estimate for £317,500, while a stainless-steel cabinet of surgical instruments, (1994), was claimed with whoops of joy by U.S. advisor Gaby Palmieri below estimate, for £349,250 ($423,430).

Market softening, though, was apparent for two previously hot women artists. (2020) by Christina Quarles, sold below estimate despite her current Whitechapel Art Gallery show, for £508,000 ($615,898), and Jade Fadojutimi’s (2018) also sold below estimate for £177,800 ($215,564). That her market has levelled off appeared to be confirmed later in the day when another work, with a punchy £400,000 low estimate, was announced as withdrawn from Christie’s.

So beneath the calm surface, this market is pulsing with uncertainty.

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