Phillips’s 20th Century and Contemporary Sale in London Achieves a Tepid $22.4 Million

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During the big Frieze Week auctions, 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After six lots had been withdrawn, 40 lots were sold and two went unsold against a pre-sale estimate of £13.9 million–£19.2 million (or $16.9 million–$23.3 million). All told, the auction realized £18.3 million ($22.4 million)—about 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estimated at £1.4 million-£1.8 million, and a 1975 Dubuffet, (1976), which had a £700,000 to £1 million estimate—were withdrawn due to lack of presale interest, Phillips said.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’s (2007), were guaranteed. Both 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 save one of the top lots sold below estimate and some at a loss to their owners. Anish Kapoor’s copper alloy disc, (2012), hit a mid-estimate £825,000 ($1 million)—considerably less than the $1.8 million it was bought for in 2014. In addition, an unnamed “esteemed private collector” who bought a late, 1952 casting of a Matisse bronze, (1909-10), back in 2007 for $2.2 million sold it now for only £660,400, or $806,480. They lost a bit less on a Cy Twombly paper collage, (1974), which they bought, also in 2007, for £311,000, selling it at Phillips at the low estimate, for £190,500 ($230,962).

Henri Matisse, . Courtesy Phillips

Such losses were probably not apparent to most observers who were swept along by some high-octane bidding on the opening lots. In those heady early moments, (2018), a painting of a windowless room by the red-hot Mohammed Sami, sold for a double-estimate £228,600 ($277,154). (2018), a surreal paining by Stefanie Heinze—who 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 no work excited as much competition as the van Gogh-influenced (2021) by Francesca Mollett. Estimated at £25,000-£35,000, the work was chased by Dolciger again, joined by bidders from Michigan and Japan. It sold 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 depiction of a 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 salesroom phenomenon was Indian figurative painter Raghav Babbar, who has enjoyed a sell-out exhibition recently at Nahmad Projects in London. The few works of his that have emerged at auction have all flown above estimate. This latest example, (2021), was no exception: two telephone bidders carried the price way over the £30,000 low estimate to £457,500 ($554,672).

On the downside, Damien Hirst still has his fans, but we have got used to him underperforming at auction, and this sale was no exception. At Phillips, his classical-looking (2011) from “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable” 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 Gabriela Palmieri, again below estimate, for £349,250 ($423,430).

The softening of the market, though, was apparent for two previously buzzy women artists. (2020) by Christina Quarles, sold below estimate, for £508,000 ($615,898), while Jade Fadojutimi’s (2018) also sold below estimate for £177,800 ($215,564). Indeed, the fact that Fadojutimi’s market has leveled off appeared to be confirmed later that very day when another work, with a hefty £400,000 low estimate, was announced as withdrawn from Christie’s evening sale.

In other words: Beneath the calm surface, this market is pulsing with uncertainty.

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