Phillips Auction Faced Its Biggest Test in Years—and Passed With $66.9 Million

  • Willem De Kooning's swirling abstract fetches $11.4 million
  • Underdog's bet on mixing blue chip, younger artists pays off

Phillips’s push to strengthen its brand under its new chief executive officer passed an important test as the auction house’s hybrid sale of 20th century and contemporary art tallied $66.9 million.

The sale on Sunday in New York cleared its low estimate of $64.4 million, and was a 28.7 percent increase over the same event last year. Willem De Kooning’s 5-foot-tall abstract painting with swirling white, yellow and red brushstrokes was the most expensive, fetching $11.4 million, just above its low estimate of $10 million. Of the 51 lots offered, 82 percent sold.

"Untitled XXVIII" by Willem de Kooning
"Untitled XXVIII" by Willem de Kooning
Source: Phillips

November’s Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary sales are among the biggest of the year for the major auction houses, and the season, which started last week and continues this week, is seen as a major test since the financial market rout in August and September. The sale was also important for Edward Dolman, the CEO appointed last year, who is trying to boost profit by balancing tightly edited categories of 20th and 21st century art and collectibles.

“It wasn’t a sale where you would jump up and down, but it was a solid sale,” said collector Don Rubell as he left the auction. “It puts them in an interesting position with stronger pieces and better price points.”

Le Corbusier

The top five lots each carried a guarantee and duly sold, though not one surpassed its high estimate. A 1932 painting by Le Corbusier, who is better known for his architecture, sold for $4.7 million, just above its low estimate of $4 million. The work, an abstract figure that looks derivative of Pablo Picasso, had been in the same collection since it was acquired directly from the artist. 

“Gladiateurs au Repos” by the surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico depicting a group of muscled mostly nude men standing in various states of repose also had never been to auction. Estimated at $4 million to $6 million, the work, dating from 1928 to 1929, sold for just under $4 million.

"Gladiateurs au Repos" by Giorgio de Chirico
"Gladiateurs au Repos" by Giorgio de Chirico
Source: Phillips

Another top lot carried a more varied provenance: Alexander Calder’s floor sculpture from 1941 had eight separate owners, though it only went up for auction once, when it sold at Christie’s New York in 2000 for $908,000. Carrying an estimate of $3.5 million to $4.5 million, the sculpture fell within its estimate, selling for slightly less than $4 million.

“Broadly speaking the sale was a success,” Dolman said. “The market is discerning. We’re happy with the progression we’re making.”

Deep Market

Sunday’s sale and last week’s $629.1 million tally of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s is a sign the art market is showing resilience as volatility continues in the financial markets. Dealers and advisers said collectors are opting for the safety of blue chip artists over those who are younger and less established. Christie’s, for instance, is offering a $100 million Amedeo Modigliani nude painting on Monday night.

“It’s a deep market," said the dealer Christophe Van De Weghe. “The positive energy of last week will continue into this week."

"Femme rouge et pelote verte" by Le Corbusier
"Femme rouge et pelote verte" by Le Corbusier
Source: Phillips

This season auction houses jockeyed not only for trophy artworks but also for the best positions to highlight them. The result was a shakeup in a schedule that for years was tightly coordinated. Phillips’s evening sale, usually slotted after Sotheby’s and Christie’s, was moved to Sunday evening in an effort to gain some early momentum, a move Dolman said he was pleased with, although it riled some attendees.

“Having an auction on a Sunday is kind of a confusing choice,” said Inigo Philbrick, a London-based dealer who bought a work by Wade Guyton for $2.4 million. When asked about the overall sale, he gave a one-word answer: “Weak.”

Wooing Consignors

Phillips, the underdog owned by Russian luxury retailer the Mercury Group, has been employing multiple strategies to assert itself -- it hired prominent members of the art world including Matt Carey-Williams, formerly a director of sales at White Cube gallery, and added a range of 20th century art into its evening sales along with postwar and contemporary art. In an effort to woo consignors, Phillips guaranteed close to 50 percent of its sale.

Despite those safeguards, there were a few disappointments. A dark, heavily worked canvas by the Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga, who painted with his feet, failed to find a bidder; it was estimated at $2 million to $3 million. The painting was one of three by Japanese artists that failed to sell. Similarly, a 9-foot tall painting by Anselm Kiefer was estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million. The work, which had cotton and linen children’s dresses embedded into the paint, also went unsold.

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