In a mighty wind-up of the fall live-stream auction calendar, Phillips New York turned in a stellar performance on December 7 with its highest ever tally reaching $134,583,400 for the 31 lots that sold.
Only four of the 35 lots offered failed to sell for a crisp buy-in rate by lot of 11 percent.
Three works were withdrawn prior to the sale and along the way five artist records were set, all by artists of color.
The tally fell solidly in the middle of the pre-sale estimate gauged at $110-160 million.
Fourteen lots were backed by financial guarantees including the top lot David Hockney landscape that also proved to be the most expensive work of the season. Thirteen lots were covered by anonymous third parties and one stand-alone by Phillips.
Another indicator of the sale’s strength was the fact that 13 of the 31 lots that sold vaulted past their high estimates and before the buyer’s premium for each lot sold was added.
While much was made of the highest result for any Phillips’ auction, it should or could be noted that the combined various owners and curated “Carte Blanche” evening sale at Phillips de Pury & Company in November 2010 realized $137 million, topped by Andy Warhol’s “Men in her Life” featuring Elizabeth Taylor and her third husband Mike Todd from 1962 that fetched $63.4 million.
Back to Phillips’ live-stream event deftly navigated in London by auctioneer Henry Highley, the sale blasted off the starting line with Amy Sherald’s “The Bathers” from 2015, depicting two women of color standing in bathing suits and holding hands against a pale turquoise background that soared to a record $4,265,000 (est. $150-200,000).
Sold by Richmond Virginia collectors and museum patrons Pamela K. Royall and her late husband William A. Royall, Jr., it was only Sherald’s second outing at auction and vanquished the previous mark of $350,000 set for “Innocent You, Innocent Me” from 2016, featuring a teen-age boy holding a strawberry ice cream cone and that sold at Christie’s New York in May 2019.
In similar record-breaking fashion, London based Jade Fadoujutimi’s semi-abstract and decidedly lush landscape, “Lotus Land” from 2017 streaked to $378,000 (est. $40-60,000) and “Big Black Rainbow (Deep Dive),” Vaughn Spann’s 80 ¼ by 80 ¼ inch canvas in polymer paint and terrycloth realized a record $239,400 (est. $40-60,000).
Later in the sale, two more Royall lots also made new highs with Kehinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote” from 2017 realizing $378,000 (est. 100-150,000) and [lot 35] Mickalene Thomas’s own self-portrait, “I’ve Been good to Me” from 2013, featuring the artist in her sunny studio and executed in rhinestones, acrylic, enamel, silkscreen and oil on a 108 by 84 inch panel, brought a whopping $901,200 (est. $200-300,000).
Though far from a record, Matthew Wong’s striking interior with a great city view, “Before Night Falls” from 2018 still doubled its high estimate, and attracting bidders from Arizona to Singapore, made $1,252,100 (est. $300-500,000) as did Amoako Boafo’s richly figurative and finger painted composition of a seated woman, “Purple on Red” from 2019 that streaked to $756,000 (est. $200-300,000).
Bidding on these lots was deep and fierce and one at times almost forgets what it was like to view such matches in a brightly lit, standing room only auction room. Those were the days.
Other women artists definitely made a number of exclamation marks during the Phillips’ evening, with Ruth Asawa’s delicately constructed “Untitled (5.045, Hanging Five-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form within a Form, with Spheres in the First, Second and Third Lobes)” from circa the early 1960’s and fabricated in copper and brass wire that sold for $3,539,000 (est. $1.5-2 million) and Agnes Martin’s [lot 6] simply titled “Untitled” Minimal canvas in oil and gold leaf from circa 1961 that brought $2,450,000 (est. $1.8-2.5 million).
In that same late and great vein, Helen Frankenthaler’s mural scaled abstraction, “Off White Square” from 1973 spurred on at least three telephone bidders and sold for $3,720,500 (est. $2.8-3.5 million).
It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005 for $419,000.
Topping this select group, Joan Mitchell’s early and meditative abstraction, “Untitled” from circa 1953 went for $11,297,500 (est. $10-15 million) and ranks as the seventh most expensive Mitchell at auction.
All four works were backed by third party guarantees.
A later and much larger Mitchell, “Untitled” from 1979 and executed in a diptych format failed to sell at a chandelier bid $8.2 million (est. $9-12 million), a casualty according to Deputy Chairman Robert Manley in a post-sale remark, to its overly aggressive estimate.
Other ten million dollar plus entries ranged from Clyfford Still’s jagged abstraction, “PH-407” from 1964 that brought $18,442,500 against an unpublished estimate at around $18 million and [lot 16] Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early but somehow uninspiring “Portrait of A-One A.K.A. King” from 1982 that realized $11,500,000 and that most likely sold on a single bid to its third party backer.
It was last seen at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 1986 when it sold for $18,150.
Though not exactly a surprise, the splendid cover lot David Hockney landscape of his beloved Los Angeles, “Nichols Canyon” from 1980, spurred at least four bidders to drive the contest to $41,067,500 (unpublished estimate in the region of $35 million.)
The Hockney, consigned by Seattle real estate octogenarian Richard Hedreen, also came to market with third party backing and ranks as the third highest Hockney to sell at auction.
It also beat out the $38.6 million mark set by Cy Twombly’s “Untitled (Bolsena)” at Christie’s 20th Century Evening sale on October 6th as the most expensive work to sell during this cross-category blitz of live-stream sales this autumn season.
Sotheby’s impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art evening sale on December 8th was dull and relatively flat compared to the fireworks at Phillips, all the while realizing $63,329,550 for the 23 works that sold.
Only two of the 23 works that sold failed to find buyers for a skimpy buy-in rate by lot of 8 percent though five lots were withdrawn just prior to the sale, representing $10.1-15.2 million in lost value, most likely a strong and prescient sign of nervous sellers.
Fifteen of the 23 works that sold came to market backed by third party (so called irrevocable bids) or house guarantees, and some in combination.
The tally, including the buyer’s premium and the added “overhead premium” of 1 percent that Sotheby’s charges on top of every hammer price, tipped the high side of pre-sale expectations pegged at $40.1 to $58.6 million.
The undisputed star performer of the evening was Alexander Calder’s exuberant and monumental in scale steel mobile, “Mariposa” from 1951 that attracted at least four bidders and took over 20 minutes to sell at $18,188,400 (est. $6-8 million).
Fresh to market and then some, it was acquired by Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus fame directly from the artist in the year Calder created it and originally hung in the company’s Preston Center store in Dallas before moving on to other luxury locations.
Comprised of 19 perfectly balanced and floating elements in shades of black, white, red and yellow, the work ranks high in the Calder universe.
The only other $10 million plus lot to keep the Calder company, was Pablo Picasso’s intense and compact portrait of his second wife and last muse, Jacqueline Roque, “Buste de femme assise” from 1962 that sold for $11,179,500 (est. $8-12 million).
It last sold at Christie’s London in November 1993 for the dollar equivalent of $591,517.
Of the few Impressionist era entries, Claude Monet’s stunning plein air landscape, “Vernon, Soleil” from 1894, deaccessioned by the Brooklyn Museum to support museum collections, after first being on long term loan there from 1908, barely raised a stir and sold for $4,729,000 (est. $4-6 million).
All of the above came to market backed by guarantees of various stripes, all of it confidential.
In that same 19th century vein, “Vincent van Gogh’s beautiful yet somehow bleak “The “Laakmolen” near The Hague” from July 1882 and executed in gouache, watercolor, charcoal and pen and ink on paper, sold to an otherwise unidentified online bidder for $2,500,500 (est. 2-3 million.)
Moving forward again to the 20th Century, Chaim Soutine’s [lot 13] thickly impastoed “Paysage de Greolieres” from circa 1920, went for $1,290,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million).
It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 for $698,500.
Contemporary fare proved a bit more exciting, at least with Barkley Hendrick’s assured and Superfly cool portrait, “Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami)” from 1972, depicting the seated figure in a white football jersey bearing the number 69 and a red baseball cap that shields the sitter’s eyes, rose to a record $4,013,000 (est. $2-3 million).
Less exciting, at least in the eyes of potential bidders, Mark Bradford’s richly layered, mixed media blanket of found and collaged detritus, “Drag Her to the Path” from 2011, sold for $3,650,000 (est. $3-5 million).
It last sold at Phillips London in June 2017 for the equivalent price of $2,937,330.
Keeping up his sadly posthumous track record of appearing and outperforming expectations in every Big 3 contemporary art auction in 2020, Matthew Wong’s beautiful seascape, “Pink Wave” from 2017 made $2,349,250 (est. $300-400,000).
Those come hither, ridiculously low estimates, seem to work well, at least with this standout artist.
In other cross-categories, Man Ray’s serially iconic, signed and dated “Untitled (Plaster cast of a nude female torso),” a gelatin silver print mounted by the artist in a canary yellow board from 1932 brought $352,800 (est. $ 300-500,000).
It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in October 1993 for $51,750, placed in a regular photography sale.
The same cross-marketing strategy apparently paid off with Claude Lalanne’s editioned “Crocodile” Armchair, cast in patinated bronze and sheathed in leather upholstery from 2015 that realized $1,109,000 (est. $600-800,000).
If there was anything remarkable about Sotheby’s underwhelming evening, the heavy bidding and buying from Asian clients, racking up a chunky 40.6 percent of the lots sold, represents a comforting sign for the market that money still flows.