Warhol ‘Marilyns’ Lead Muted $79 Million Phillips Sale

Andy Warhol’s 1962 silkscreen painting “Four Marilyns” sold for $38.2 million at Phillips in New York Thursday night, the top price in a $78.6 contemporary-art sale that concluded two weeks of semi-annual evening auctions.

The tally for the auction barely exceeded its presale low estimate of $77.5 million and was well below the high target of $105.5 million; last May’s tally was $86.9 million.

Seven of the 37 lots failed to find buyers. A dozen lots were guaranteed to sell by Phillips, a third party or a combination thereof.

“The sale was measured,” said New York art adviser Mary Hoeveler. “People spent a lot of money in the preceding auctions.”

Christie’s recorded the highest auction tally in history the night before with $495 million and set 12 artist records, including milestones for Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Earlier in the week, Sotheby’s sold about $300 million of art, establishing records for Barnett Newman and Gerhard Richter.

No artist records were set at Phillips, which is owned by the Russian retailer Mercury Group. Many seats were empty in the muted Manhattan salesroom.

Simon de Pury, the company’s theatrical co-founder and longtime chief auctioneer, left the firm last year. His place was taken by a youthful Alexander Gilkes, co-founder of Paddle8, who steered things along at a brisk pace, wrapping up the sale in less than an hour.

Shifting Estimate

“Four Marilyns” was consigned by an anonymous collector. The estimate -- offered upon request -- was $35 million to $50 million, according to Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s chief executive officer. The high end of the range was later changed to $45 million.

“It’s a fluid thing, the estimate upon request,” he said after the auction.

Three bidders vied for the painting by Warhol, whose auction record of $71.7 million was set in 2007. The winner was Victoria Gelfand-Magalhaes of Gagosian gallery, who was bidding for a client on the phone.

The 29-by-21-inch canvas depicts four almost identical Marilyn Monroe heads: two on the top, two on the bottom. The images are set against a cadmium-orange background and depict the actress with lavender skin, turquoise eye-shadow and yellow hair.

The image was based on a 1952 publicity still promoting the film “Niagara.” Underlying the painting’s iconic quality is the fact that it was done shortly after the star’s death.

The same work sold for $2.3 million in 1998 at Sotheby’s in New York. In 1992, it sold for $955,399 at Sotheby’s London.

Few Blockbusters

“Four Marilyns” was the most expensive Warhol of this season, which saw fewer blockbuster pieces by the late Pop artist than previous years. Warhol ranked first among the top 25 artists by auction revenue in 2012. His works sold for a total of $380.3 million last year, according to Artnet.

Few lots surpassed their high estimates at the Phillips sale. Jeff Koons’s 1986 sculpture “Jim Beam -- Observation Car,” made with stainless steel and bourbon, sold for $1.6 million, short of the $1.8 million target. Elsworth Kelly’s 1968 painting “Green Black” went for $2.9 million, also shy of the high estimate of $3.5 million.

Lichtenstein’s 1972 “Still Life,” depicting a bowl with grapes and an apple, fetched $4.1 million, just squeezing past the low estimate of $4 million. Prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.

Nate Lowman’s “Escalade” (2005-2007) sold for $545,000 against the estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. Earlier this week, a similar piece sold for $665,000 at Sotheby’s, setting an auction record for the artist.

The biggest casualty was a 1983-84 painting and collage on canvas, “Untitled (Soap)” by Basquiat. Estimated at $5 million to $7 million, it failed to attract a single bid.

“I am sad the Basquiat didn’t sell,” said Courtney Love, pulling out a pack of cigarettes after the auction. “Marilyn was a little overrated.”

She declined to say whether she bought anything.

“I collect sporadically and mostly women artists,” said the rocker, dressed in a skin-toned and skin-tight Roland Mouret dress. “Generally I bid by phone.”

Muse highlights include Farah Nayeri on Cannes films, Richard Vines on dining.