Phillips’s Tidy Little Evening Sale
Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," 2010.

Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” 2010.

Fireworks were scarce at Phillips’s contemporary evening sale, coming at the tail end of a long week of auction action dominated by giants Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Still, the firm sold £17.7/$26.9 million, a fraction of what its fellow Mayfair rivals raked in (£117.1 at Christie’s and £123.5 million at Sotheby’s).

Only two of the 30 lots offered failed to sell for a trim buy-in rate by lot of seven percent.

The decent yet modest tally pointed towards the high end of pre-sale expectations of £13.6-20.1/$18.3-27.1 million.

Estimates do not reflect the buyer’s premium, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £50,000, 20 percent above £50,000 and up to £1 million and 12 percent of the portion for anything above that.

The result easily vaulted last February’s anemic £10.4/$17 million sale. Five lots sold for over a million pounds and seven sold for over a million dollars. Two artist records were set.

Phillips guaranteed five lots with third party backers valued at £4.4–6.9 million.

The short evening got off to a quick start with Rashid Johnson’s  text-based painting in acrylic and grain on canvas from 2008 that depicts a Civil Rights era poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. It sold for £116,500/$177,080 (est. £60–80,000).

Nate Lowman’s  familiar, ballistic bullet-hole composition “Six Shooter” from 2005 in silkscreen ink on canvas made £110,500/$167,960 (est. £120–180,000).

Kelley Walker’s mural-scaled appropriation piece “Untitled” from 2008, comprised of multiple collaged newspaper and magazine clippings embedded in a brick-like patterned framework, sold for £242,500/$368,600 (est. £150–250,000). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2012 for £217,250.

Phillips is best known, and sometimes controversially so, as launching young and barely tested artists on the secondary market platform, as evidenced by Fredrik Vaerslev’s large-scale abstraction “Untitled (Canopy Painting: Blue and Orange V)” from 2012, a Barnett Newman look-alike zip painting, which sold below estimate for £68,500/$104,120 (est. £80–120,000).

The better known Dahn Vo’s already storied “We the People, Element #L1” from 2011–13, the Vietnamese artist’s disjointed, copper sculptural replica of the Statue of Liberty, brought £158,500/$240,920 (est. £150–200,000).

Recent art market star  Alex Israel was also featured with his giant piece of painted scenery from a movie studio set, “Sky Backdrop” from 2013, measuring 107 7/8 by 192 inches, which easily found a buyer at £506,500/$769,880 (est. £400-600,000). It came backed by Phillips’s bulletproof, third-party backed guarantee. Another Israel painting, “Untitled (Flats)” from 2011, was withdrawn from Christie’s sale Wednesday evening with a much lower estimate of £80-120,000.

More serious fare included Tauba Auerbach’s neatly creased abstraction, “Untitled (Fold) X” from 2009, which sold for £1,202,500/$1,827,800 (est. £1–1.5 million). It also came with a Phillips third-party guarantee.

The evening’s most fantastical offering and cover lot, Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” from 2010, cast in gold-plated bronze and number seven from an edition of eight plus four artist proofs, sold to a telephone bidder for a record £2,882,500/$4,381,400 (est. £2–3 million).

Inspired by the pillaged bronze zodiac figures from the water-clock fountain in the Garden of Perfect Brightness belonging to Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty in 1860, the contemporary reprise consists of bust-like portraits of a rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. The group of zodiac heads is mounted on individual wooden plinths and larger versions have traveled the world and publicly displayed in outdoor settings from New York to London.

Ai Weiwei’s creation, apart from its artistic merit, is laced with geopolitical intrigue: At the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé single owner sale in February 2009 co-presented by Christie’s and Pierre Bergé in Paris, two of the original 18th-century bronzes, a rabbit and a rat from the Old Summer Palace, were offered for sale and created an international uproar after the buyer turned out to be a Chinese protester indignant of the sale of such historical importance, who then refused to pay the $40 million price for the heads. François-Henri Pinault, the head of Kering, the company that owns Christie’s, made a highly publicized gift of the bronzes to China in 2013.

Another sculpture (lot 10), Urs Fischer’s jumbo-scaled outdoor work “Bad Timing, Lamb Chop!” from 2004–05 — consisting of a over-scaled cigarette pack attached to a bar stool and executed in cast aluminum, polyurethane resin, and enamel paint — sold below estimate at £506,500/$769,880 (est. £600–800,000).

Works by brand-name, blue chip artists sold conservatively as in the case of Christopher Wool’s large scale, swirling abstraction “Untitled” from 2003 in enamel on linen, which brought £1,426,500/$2,168,280 (est.£1.2–1.8 million). It too carried a third party guarantee.

Of the more interesting offerings, though seemingly too huge for a domestic setting, Julie Mehretu’s complex and richly layered abstraction in ink and acrylic on canvas, “Invisible Sun (algorithm 2)” from 2013, sold for £902,500/$1,371,800 (est. £700–900,000).

The only bidding fireworks that took place engulfed Mark Bradford’s intensely layered and mural-scaled composition “Biting the Book” from 2013, a mixed-media marvel at 102 3/8 by 144 ½ inches. It sold to a telephone bidder for a record £2,546,500/$3,870,680 (est. £1–1.5 million). After auctioneer Alexander Gilkes opened the bidding at £750,000, expecting an increment of say £50,000, a telephone bid roared in £1.3 million, setting off a contest between several other telephones before the winning £2.2 million hammer price. The multi-layered, map-like painting, comprised of all sorts of found paper detritus, was included in the Mark Bradford solo exhibition at London’s White Cube from 2013.

The heavy bidding for Bradford, however, dissipated during the rest of the sale, as if the global art market had already spent its wad at auction giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s earlier in the week.

Still, Andy Warhol’s fetishized “Diamond Dust Shoes” from 1980 — in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and diamond dust on canvas — sold to another telephone bidder for £2,322,500/$3,530,200 (est. £1.5–2.5 million). Before he became a star Pop artist in the early 1960’s, Warhol was a top class New York fashion illustrator. The Warhol also carried a third-party guarantee.

British Pop Art star Allen Jones was also in the mix with “Sin-Derella,” an oil on canvas from 1969 depicting the lower extremities of an entwined male and female duo. It sold for £386,500/$587,480 (est. £300–500,000). It last sold at Christie’s London in May 2012 for £229,250, indicating a rather handsome return.

That also appeared to be the case for another Nate Lowman entry “Trash Landing Marilyn #12” from 2011 in oil, alkyd on linen that sold to another telephone bidder for £422,500/$642,200 (est. £400–600,000). It last sold at Phillips New York in November 2013 for $725,000.

With the absence of classic heavyweights like Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, attention turned to one of Phillips’s star lots, Cy Twombly’s “Untitled” from 1962, in graphite, oil stick, and ink on Fabriano paper and bearing his glorious graffiti markings. It sold for £482,500/$733,400 (est. £350–450,000), mildly ahead of the £385,000 it fetched at Sotheby’s London evening sale in February 2012.

Phillips’s sweet spot remains with the younger, emerging star set as evidenced by Mark Flood’s “Another Hole in the Ground” lace painting from 2012 that sold for £42,500/$64,600 (est. £20–30,000) — and the evening’s final lot, Oscar Murillo’s expressionist “Bingo” from 2012, executed in oil, oil stick, and dirt on canvas. It sold to the telephone for £206,500/$313,880 (est. £120–180,000).

It remains to be seen whether Phillips can further raise its game and take advantage of the boutique firm’s sensational London quarters facing Berkeley Square.

“I was all set for it to be a debacle,” said London dealer Inigo Philbrick, “but it felt like a successful sale and seemed like a lot of the prices were strong.”

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