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by Meredith Mendelsohn
|Can French financier Bernard Arnault remake Phillips Auctioneers into a major player in the global art auction business, dominated till now by Christie's and Sotheby's? Judging by last night's May 18 sale of contemporary art in New York, mounted by Phillips on West 53rd Street in quarters rented from the American Craft Museum, the answer would be "yes."
The sale totaled $11 million, just shy of Phillips' $11.2 million presale estimate. Only two of 39 works failed to sell -- rather better than Phillips' debut auction of Impressionist and modern art last week, in which 12 of 31 lots were bought in. And like its rivals' sales earlier this week, Phillips saw record prices for artists at auction -- Agnes Martin and Damien Hirst -- and had good results from an array of works by auction regulars, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Judd, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth and Andy Warhol.
It's no secret that in order to coax consignors away from Christie's and Sotheby's Phillips had to offer substantial guarantees (a minimum payment even if the work didn't sell), advances and/or loans on almost every lot. But as CEO Christopher Thomson commented after the sale, "Bernard Arnault is not a philanthropist; he's a successful businessman," suggesting that Phillips wouldn't take such financial risks if it weren't worth it.
Among the big-ticket items, Gerhard Richter's 1987 painting of a blurry landscape with apple trees sold for $1.7 million (est. $1.2 million-$1.5 million), the top price in the entire sale. It went to New York dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who was an active bidder throughout the week. An untitled Richter abstraction in white and pale earth tones went for $310,500 to Larry Gagosian. Richter's auction record for a realist work is $3.7 million; for an abstrakte bilder the top price is $607,500.
Of Damien Hirst's three works in the sale, Out of Sight, Out of Mind (1991) -- two cow heads in glass tanks -- was the most sought after, and finally sold to an European phone bidder for $552,500. The work is the first of Hirst's "pickled animal" pieces to be offered on the block in the U.S. -- one of his dead fish walls sold at Christie's London in 1998 -- and it broke the artist's $354,500 record for a sculpture at auction. Before the bidding started, auctioneer Dan Klein explained that a U.S. buyer would have to sign an affidavit stating that he or she would only use the work for art purposes, and would not use it in a way that could cause the spread of Mad Cow's disease. The sculptures were not in the salesroom, by the way.
Hirst's equally disturbing With Dead Head (1981-91) also fared well. Produced in an edition of 15, the photo of the smiling artist standing with his head an inch away from some old dead guy's bloated noggin sold for $74,000 (est. $30,000-$40,000).
One of the surprises of the evening was the bidding frenzy that met Wayne Thiebaud's classic 1963 pop painting of several-neat rows of tasty looking hors d'oeuvres. It sold for $387,500, more than twice its estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.
Works by trendy younger artists found eager bidders, too. Among these were Tom Sachs, whose installation of guns and bullets got New York dealer Mary Boone arrested last September; Brit sensation Sam Taylor-Wood, who recently had a sold out show at Matthew Marks; and Peter Doig, also British, who shows with hipster dealer Gavin Brown. Sachs' Key Kabinet Kontrol (1995), a small cupboard made of Con Edison barriers and filled with keys, ammo and a wooden gun, sold for $14,950 (est. $8,000-$10,000). Wood's set of two panoramic color photos, Five Revolutionary Seconds VII -- each showing four people in a spacious, elegant interior -- sold for $36,800, well above its $15,000-$20,000 estimate. Doig's 78 by 108 in. ominous painting of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation tucked behind a forest sold for $156,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000).
It seems that Phillips may have a New York edge on property by young British artists. After the sale, Phillips contemporary specialist Michael McGinnis admitted that he has a fondness for YBAS. "Plus," he added, "it's no coincidence that Aileen Hovanessian [Phillips other contemporary specialist] used to work for Jay Jopling's White Cube."
For a complete, illustrated listing of the sale results, check out Artnet's trademark Fine Art Auctions Report.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.