Phillips’ Opening Night Bucks Stiff Financial Market Winds
Ed Ruscha's "Ship Talk" 1988, which sold for £884,500.

Ed Ruscha’s “Ship Talk” 1988, which sold for £884,500.

On a day when the Eurozone crisis hammered global financial markets, the art market passed a tough contemporary art test at Phillips London, as the boutique-scaled auction house realized £18,045,900/$28,391,795. Eight of the 50 lots offered failed to sell, for a respectable 16 percent buy-in rate by lot. The tally hit the low end of pre-sale expectations pegged at £17.1-26.1/$26.9-41 million, effectively doubling last July’s modestly scaled £9.9/$17 million result for 23 lots sold.

Four works sold for over a million pounds and seven hurdled one million dollars — including Ai WeiWei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” from 2010, the evening’s top lot at £3,442,500/$5,404,725 (est. £3-5 million), which set a new record for the artist. (All prices reported include the hammer price of each lot sold, plus the add-on buyer’s premium, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £50,000; 20 percent of the portion of the hammer price above £50,000 and up to and including £1 million; and 12 percent for anything above that. Pre-sale estimates do not include the buyer’s premium.)

Seventeen of the evening’s entries carried financial guarantees, six fully backed by Phillips and eleven by anonymous third party guarantees according to the symbols printed in the auction catalogue.

The evening kicked off with a day-glo colored Rob Pruitt painting, “Country Boy” from 2011, composed of acrylic, enamel paint, and flocking on canvas that sold for £80,500/$126,385 (est. £60-80,000). Jonas Wood’s sharply shadowed “Fish Tank” from 2007 — depicting the colorful tank on a black stand, set against a two-toned yellow and orange background — sold to a telephone bidder for a toppy £266,500/$418,405 (est. £50-70,000). Dealer Jose Mugrabi was the underbidder.

In his evening auction debut, Belgian born artist Harold Ancart’s “Untitled” from 2012, a strikingly graphic white-lined on black abstraction punctuated by a yellow orb and executed in oil stick on paper, housed in artist’s frame, doubled expectations and sold to Mugrabi for £47,500/$74,575 (est. £20-30,000).

Auction veteran Nate Lowman’s familiar bullet hole–shaped painting, “Orange Proxima” from 2005 in silkscreen on canvas, laid on panel and guaranteed by Phillips, went to a telephone bidder for £218,500/$343,045 (est. £200-300,000). In a more intellectual, Duchampian vein, Robert Gober’s widely exhibited “Drain” from 1989, executed in cast pewter from an edition of 10 plus two artist’s proofs, also went to the telephone for £254,500/$343,045 (est. £100-150,000). New York dealer Stellan Holm was the underbidder, also chased by London dealer Fernando Mignoni.

Rosemarie Trockel’s smoky “False Alarm” from 2012, comprised of stretched black wool on white canvas sold for £218,500/$343,045 (est. £200-300,000). It last sold at Sotheby’s London’s day sale in October 2012 for £139,250 and this time came armed with a Phillips’ house guarantee.

Materials of all sorts formed part of the offerings mix, including exotic plumage as Carol Bove’s totem-like abstraction, “Untitled” from 2008, comprised of peacock feathers on linen, went for £140,500/$220,585 (est. £120-180,000). Speaking of exotic fare, Raqib Shaw’s large-scale, tondo-shaped composition of ancient ruins and wild animals, “Arrival of the Horse King from the series Paradise Lost” dated 2011–12, included a racy array of oil, acrylic, enamel, glitter, and rhinestones on birch plywood. It sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for the first million-dollar price for £722,500/$1,134,325 (est. £700,000-1 million).

Though Mark Grotjahn is better known for his highly sought-after paintings, his brawny and mask-like sculpture “Untitled (Three Sided with X out of Shell Stand Flat SF4.a)” from 2013, in bronze and ceramic shell on wooden plinth, sold to New York dealer Joe Nahmad for £182,500/$286,525 (est. £140-180,000). In shiny contrast, Sherrie Levine’s “Caribou Skull,” cast in polished cast bronze from 2006, and numbered six from an edition of 12 plus three artist’s proofs, made £494,500/$776,365 (est. £300-500,000). It was backed by a Phillips’ guarantee.

Perfectly timed to coincide with his survey show that opened June 20th at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Mark Bradford’s “Waiting on Forever” from 2011, densely layered and rich in found-media detritus, didn’t fly but sold on a single bid for £458,500/$719,845 (est. £400-600,000). It came unencumbered — that is, without a financial guarantee — which makes sense, given the enormous waiting list for any Bradford primary market works. Buyers have to purchase two works, promising one to a museum as a future donation.

“It was a small-scaled piece,” said Phillips’ London contemporary head Peter Sumner, in an after-sale comment, “but very difficult to get hold of in the current primary market.”

Another recent museum survey graduate, former YBA star Chris Ofili was represented by a wildly decorative work, “Homage” from 1993–95, brimming with acrylic, oil, polyester resin, map pins, and elephant dung on linen that made £302,500/$474,925 (est. £300-500,000). It was backed by a third-party guarantee and last sold at Christie’s London way back in December 1998 for £19,500.

But the cards didn’t pan out for Street Art star Banksy as “Study for Happy Choppers” from 2003 — a found and framed oil painting bristling with the image of a hovering, spray-painted helicopter threatening a bucolic scene — crashed unsold at a chandelier bid of £190,000 (est. £300–400,000). It last sold in Vienna at Dorotheum in November 2007 for €191,300/$284,291.

Photography was well covered, too, as Cindy Sherman’s made-up clown performer, “Untitled #423” from 2004, a chromogenic print in artist’s frame and edition-number five of six, went to a telephone bidder for £290,500/$456,085 (est. £200-300,000).

Andreas Gursky’s grandly scaled and third party–backed “James Bond Island III” from 2007, featuring an aerial view of the Thai islands of Kao Phing Kan, made £362,500/$569,125 (est. £300-500,000) — but the earlier, frenetic scene, “Chicago, Mercantile Exchange” from 1997, bought in at £550,000 (est. £650-850,000), perhaps a portent of the day’s trading funk. Both works come from an edition of six.

One-time “Sensation” star Damien Hirst was represented in part with a nearly 6-foot-square, butterfly-festooned “painting,” the kaleidoscopic patterned “Veneration” from 2007 and comprised of butterflies and household gloss paint on canvas that squeaked by at £482,500/$757,525 (est. £450-650,000).

For sheer bulk and boldly cast in bronze statement, Ai WeiWei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” including a dozen creatures such as rat, tiger, and snake, took the evening’s top lot. Other sets from the edition have traveled the world in highly publicized outdoor exhibitions, such as the one at the Fountain Court at Somerset House in London in 2011.

“The market for works of that size,” said Ed Dolman, Phillips CEO, shortly after the hour-long auction, “is more limited.”

Things were more patchy on the blue chip front, with two of the five Warhols offered biting the dust. The petite 14-by-14-inch “Flowers” from 1964, signed and dated by the artist (always a good sign in the Warhol market), also bearing an Ileana Sonnabend provenance, sold to the telephone for £722,500/$1,134,325 (est. £650-850,000). Less impressive, though much larger in scale, Warhol’s lithographic suite “Marilyn Monroe” from 1967, a portfolio of ten screen prints of the screen goddess in different colors, including the original corrugated cardboard portfolio box, sold for £1,202,500/$1,887,925 (est. £1–1.5 million). It last sold at Phillips New York in March 2014 for $1.8 million, so call it a wash for the seller.

Of the four Ed Ruscha paintings to hit the Phillips’ deck, “the ghostly “Ship Talk” from 1988, a mural-scaled work depicting a trio of dark and menacing sailing ships from a bygone era, triggered the evening’s most fervent bidding and sold to Stefan Ratibor of Gagosian Gallery for £884,500/$1,388,665 (est. £400-600,000). Jose Mugrabi was the underbidder. It was last offered at Sotheby’s New York in November 2012, where it bought in. Another Ruscha offering, a catchy 16-by-60-inch text painting, “She Slept With Two Wind-Up Alarm Clocks” from 1978, sold under estimate to Belgian dealer Paolo Vedovi for £362,500/$569,125 (est. £400-600,000).

“For Ruscha,” said Vedovi as he exited the salesroom, “it was quite a good buy.”

The evening’s much talked about cover lot, Bruce Nauman’s transfixing and rather macabre “Hanging Heads #$1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open/Red Julie with Cap)” from 1989, executed in wax, wood, and wire in two parts, didn’t generate much heat and sold to the telephone for £1,762,500/$2,767,125 (est £1.5–2.5 million). The suspended heads last sold at Christie’s London in June 2005 for £680,000/$1,240,423. Another version of the sculpture resides at the Museum of Modern Art. Tonight, it didn’t seem to matter.

Of the German artist art star entries, Sigmar Polke’s “Carnival” from 1979, a multi-image work in the style of Francis Picabia, sold to another telephone bidder £1,142,500/$1,793,725 (est. £1–1.5 million).

“We’re very pleased with the sale,” said CEO Dolman moments after the steady yet unexceptional evening. “It made double what we did last year, so it’s a good progression.”

The evening action resumes at Christie’s Tuesday evening.

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