A two-part Phillips sale of 20th century and contemporary art in New York on Tuesday started out with optimism and enthusiasm, even prompting staff to start bringing out extra chairs, then took a turn midway through as many lots failed to impress.
There was a noticeable change in the the mood of the room by lot 23 of the 56-work sale, and there were many empty chairs by lot 45. It didn’t help that the 56 lots generated a collective hammer price of $128 million, or $154.6 million in sales with fees, falling just short of the house’s original presale low estimate of $130 million.
Four lots were withdrawn, and 39 lots were backed by financial guarantees, including all 30 of the works consigned by the Triton Collection Foundation.
Twenty lots still closed with hammer prices below their low estimates, most of them during the first half of the sale. These included works by Alexander Calder, Edgar Degas, Joan Mitchell, and Paul Gauguin, as well as a painting by Pablo Picasso with a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $20 million.
The untitled Mitchell work, from 1953, had an estimate of $8 million to $12 million; some may have been closely watching it, given the Mitchell’s auction record was just reset this week at Christie’s, where a painting of hers sold for $29.2 million. But the hammer price for this piece was only $6.5 million, or just under $7.9 million with fees.
Joan Mitchell , Untitled, 1953. Courtesy of Phillips.
Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attese also failed to reach its pre-sale estimate. Estimated to bring in $1.5 million to $2 million, it closed at a hammer price of $1.2 million or $1.5 million with fees.
The results for Mitchell and Fontana weren’t rare exceptions. None of the top 20 results from the evening generated hammer prices that exceeded their high estimates. These included the night’s top performer: Gerhard Richter’s two-part painting Abstraktes Bild (636) , from 1987. With a pre-sale estimate “in the region of $30 million,” it sold for a hammer price of exactly that amount, or $34.8 million with fees. Still, that sum was large enough to be one of the top five prices for the artist.
Those on the ground took note of these disappointing results. “I’ve never known an auction to be so quiet,” one could be heard saying. Still, the sale was the second-biggest one Phillips had ever conducted, and its results marked an 11 percent increase over the house’s November modern and contemporary art auction in New York from last year.
In a press conference immediately following the auction, Robert Manley, Phillips’s deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art, acknowledged that the night’s mixed performance followed similar results at other auction houses. “Tonight was not unlike the last few months,” he said. “Yes, bidding was thinner, but most everything found a home. Considering everything going on in the world, the market has been very resilient. Art seems to be something people embrace in difficult times.”
One standout was the Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini’s Mare = Ballerina (1913–14). This lot had an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. After 4 minutes and 46 seconds of bidding, it closed with a hammer price of $350,000, nearly three times its high estimate, or $444,500 with fees. (Impressive as the result may be, it is far below Severini’s auction record of $29.6 million.)
Gino Severini, Mare = Ballerina, 1913–14. Courtesy of Phillips.
Certain emerging artists fared well. Painter Ambera Wellmann’s Ritz (2018) started off the second half of the evening with an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000, but closed with a hammer price of $105,000 or $133,350 with fees. Lucy Bull’s Dark companion (2020) hammered at $820,000 or more than $1 million with fees, on an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, putting it among the most expensive works by her ever sold at auction.
Ben Sledsens’s A nice second break (2017) prompted a heated competition between a bidder on the phone with Manley and online bidders in Hong Kong and Qatar. The rapid activity pushed the hammer price of the midnight forest tableau to $1.55 million, or $1.94 million with fees, on an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
A colorful painting by Jadé Fadojutimi, Quirk my mannerism , from 2021, set a new record for the young London-based artist, who appeared in last year’s Venice Biennale. After more than five minutes of bidding, the lot closed with a hammer price of $1.55 million, or $1.94 million with fees, smashing the estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
Jadé Fadojutimi, Quirk my mannerism , 2021. Courtesy of Phillips.
The abstract painter has become one of the most sought-after emerging artists, even joining Gagosian’s roster last year . At the London auctions in October 2021, Fadojutimi set two auction records at Sotheby’s and Phillips in two consecutive days , a statistic cheekily acknowledged during Tuesday evening’s press conference. “We had it one and a half years ago, and now it’s back,” Manley said. “Back where it belongs.”
“It’s no surprise you’re seeing fewer crazy results for younger artists,” he continued. “The prices have been solid, just less ridiculous. The way things were a few years ago was unsustainable. The more sustainable prices and growth, the more healthy the market will be.”
Tuesday’s sale at Phillips followed the tame results during Sotheby’s modern evening art sale that generated $224 million , as well as the house’s white-glove sale of 31 works from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection last Tuesday that brought in $406 million and a $640 million sale of 20th-century art at Christie’s that set several artist records last Thursday.