At Phillips, a Modest Contemporary Sale Appeals to the Young
Richard Prince, My Life as a Weapon, 2007, Acrylic and collage on canvas, 203.2 x 303.5 cm (80 x 119 1/2 in).

Richard Prince, My Life as a Weapon, 2007, Acrylic and collage on canvas, 203.2 x 303.5 cm (80 x 119 1/2 in).

LONDON—Staggering to the finish line of a marathon art season, Phillips’s evening contemporary sale made a modest £9,920,750/$17,015,089 on Wednesday.

The tiny sale, with just 27 lots on offer, landed midway between pre-sale expectations of £7.7-11.1 million/$13.2-19 million, with only four lots failing to sell, for a neat 15 percent buy-in rate. That trailed last June’s larger sale, which tallied £12.3/$18.8 million, with just eight percent unsold by lot. (Estimates do not reflect premiums and all sold prices include the buyer’s premium.)

A single work sold for more than a million pounds and just six hurdled the million-dollar mark, indicating the light weight nature of the entries. A single artist record was set.

The brief evening kicked off with David Ostrowski’s large abstraction, “F (Gee Voucher)” from 2012, executed in acrylic, lacquer, and paper on canvas and nestled in the artist’s wooden frame, which sold for a record £170,500/$292,425 (est. £30-50,000). It was the third jumbo-sized Ostrowski to appear in this week’s evening sales, beating Sotheby’s “F (Dann Lieber Nein)” at £122,500/$208,434 and Christie’s same-titled work from the series, which sold for £104,500/$178,591.

“Ours was bigger,” quipped Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s CEO, moments after the sale, “but I liked them all to be honest with you.”

Phillips cannily packed the evening with works by younger, emerging artists who’ve entered the red hot secondary market, including Tauba Auerbach’s “Untitled (Fold)” from 2012, a creased canvas abstraction resembling in part the work of Piero Manzoni. It sold to an unidentified bidder in the room for £386,500/$662,887 (est. £250-350,000).

Auerbach is currently showcased at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, no doubt a boon to her critical reputation and market strength.

In similar fashion, Lucien Smith’s fire extinguisher work,“Boys Don’t Cry,” from 2012, in acrylic on unprimed canvas, sold to a telephone bidder for £116,500/$199,809 (est. £40-60,000).

Typically with these younger artists, the houses place come-hither low estimates on the works, confident they’ll end up flying higher.

Though the evening was a kind of miniature day-sale version of what goes on at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the room was decidedly younger and hipper looking, including a couple seated toward the back of the salesroom with a baby carriage nestled next to their aisle seats.

The beat went on as a relatively small-scaled 46 ½-by-47 ¼-inch Rudolf Stingel text-scratched composition, “Untitled” from 2012, executed in electroformed copper, plated nickel, and gold, drew four telephone bidders, making £842,500/$1,444,973 (est. £400-600,00). The word ‘CONFIDENCE’ was scratched into the surface and coursed down the center of the canvas, perhaps a beacon of the current market.

It was backed by a third-party guarantee, meaning a collector or investor outside of Phillips assured the work would sell no matter what happened in the salesroom.

Phillips assembled pieces by all the right names in the market now, including Wade Guyton’s large-scale “Untitled” Epson Ultrachrome ink jet on linen from 2007, which brought £602,500/$1,033,348 (est. £500-700,000). It appeared in the artist’s 2008 solo show at Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris, one of his five primary-market galleries. The 84 3/8 by 69 1/8 inch canvas also carried a financial guarantee.

Examples of latest and greatest names continued to roll out as Mark Bradford’s lattice-like composition, “An Opening on the Left” from 2010, in mixed media collage on canvas, sold to another telephone bidder for a healthy £698,500/$1,197,998 (est. £400-600,000), and Sterling Ruby’s mural-scaled “SP33” abstraction from 2008, in acrylic and spray paint on canvas, squeaked by on a telephone bid at £542,500/$930,442 (est. £500-700,000). You might call the Ruby a poor man’s Richter Abstraktes Bild.

Jacob Kassay’s shimmering monochrome “Untitled” from 2012, in acrylic and silver deposit on canvas, scaled at 84 by 60 inches, also attracted a number telephone bidders, going for £164,500/$282,134 (est. £120-180,000).

A market sensation just a few seasons ago when he electrified wannabe collectors pursuing the next big thing, Kassay seems to have dimmed a bit in terms of desirability.

Big abstractions may have the favorite entries of the evening, as Mark Flood’s kaleidoscopic abstraction “Mineral” from 2003, grandly scaled at 95 7/8 by 72 ¼ inches, sold to another telephone for £86,500/$148,356 (est. £30-50,000).

On the sculpture front, Anthony Gormley’s milled-steel bar “Domain XI (Freefall)” from 2000, capturing the sensation and visage of a falling man, sold to yet another telephone bidder for £182,500/$313,006 (est. £150-250,000). Anish Kapoor’s distorting “Untitled” from 2008, a large-scale, deckle-edged disc in stainless steel with a mirror-like finish, sold over the telephone for £812,500/$1,393,520 (est. £600-800,000). New York art advisor Kim Heirston was the underbidder.

”Everyone is fairly fried,” said Heirston as she left the salesroom, referring to the market players, “and all of my clients are either on their boats or relaxing around their pools.”

Asked about the atmosphere in the salesroom, Heirston said, “I couldn’t get over how young the audience looks.”

The youth factor was particularly in evidence as Damien Hirst’s butterfly painting “Lucy” from 2008-9, comprised of butterflies, cubic zirconia, and household gloss painting canvas, came up. It sold for £290,500/$498,237 (est. £150-250,000) to a young woman bidding in the second row.

“I live in Beirut,” said buyer, Dida Ahmad, as she exited the Howick Place salesroom where Phillips has conducted sales since 2006. “This is the first Hirst in our collection. I got it for not a bad price because people were focusing on other things.”

Of the relatively few blue-chip brand works, the cover lot, Andy Warhol’s late “fright wig series” “Self-Portrait” from 1986, sold to a telephone bidder for £2,882,500/$4,943,779. The 22-by-22 inch canvas was last offered at Phillips de Pury & Company in November 2011, but failed to sell.

A larger, 90-by-70 inch version with the same shocking pink face color sold at Skarstedt Gallery’s stand at Art Basel last month for a price understood to be in the $30-million range. Size matters.

Richard Prince’s mural-scaled joke painting, “My Life as a Weapon” from 2007, in acrylic and collage on canvas, sold to another telephone bidder for £680,500/$1,167,126 (est. £550-750,000).

Midway through the bidding on the Prince, auctioneer Alexander Gilkes once again caved in to the niggling demands of the room and agreed to split the bid increment in half, an option the auctioneer can either take or refuse.

There was a kind of nostalgic feel to the evening, since it was the last auction to take place in the firm’s gigantic, 19th-century former postal collecting station; future sales will be held in its posh new quarters on Berkeley Square.

“This is the end of an era,” said New Yorker Michael McGinnis after the sale. “Berkeley Square will be our uptown version.”

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