The week of New York auctions of contemporary art began with a bang at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg on May 14, 2001, when 40 of 49 lots -- or 82 percent -- sold for a total of $16.4 million (with premium), somewhat under the presale estimate of $18.8 million-$26 million. "That's an improvement over last November by 16 percent," said auctioneer Simon de Pury in his remarks to the assembled press after the sale. Phillips first contemporary auction six months ago sold only about two-thirds of its lots.
This time around, new auction records were set for works by six artists: Elizabeth Peyton ($77,300, for a large portrait of hip downtown dealer Colin de Land, of all things); Chris Ofili ($211,500, for Foxy Roxy, a slutty nude with six clods of elephant dung); Rachel Whiteread ($365,500, for an orange rubber and foam cast of a mattress from 1993); Mariko Mori ($134,500 for a 14-foot-long photo self-portrait of the artist as a space alien, from an edition of three); David Hammons ($409,500 for a combination crystal chandelier and basketball hoop); and Shirin Neshat ($70,700 for a photo, from an edition of three).
De Pury was pleased to point out that the former records for five of these six artists had been set at other houses, and note that Phillips had "substantially increased our market share." He declined to specify any growth targets, however, though he did point to today's sale of fine jewelry in Geneva as still another example of the house's expanding portfolio.
It's worth mentioning that the Hammons sculpture, which is dated 2000, made its public debut at the sale. The New York artist, who was born in 1943, has no gallery representation, and his works are obviously much in demand. At least, now they are -- his previous auction record was all of $18,400, set at Christie's 18 months ago.
Back in the 1990s, dyspeptic dealers began fretting that new art would move directly from the studio into the auction salesrooms after the auction houses made alliances with galleries -- notably when Sotheby's went into business with Jeffrey Deitch. The likely candidate at the time seemed to be Jeff Koons, due to his association with Deitch. Apparently, it took the competitive drive of the upstart Phillips to make what amounts to a real change in the structure of the market. (It's worth noting, too, that Koons himself took the unusual step of posing for the exceptional ad campaign that Sotheby's has mounted for the May 15 auction of his 1988 ceramic sculpture, Michael Jackson and Bubbles).
De Pury also said that Phillips had sold several of the passed works directly following the auction, including a 10-foot-wide "landscape" from 1971 by Gerhard Richter that carried a presale estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million.
Though its drama was in contemporary, the sale's top lots established the house as a player in modern. "The stakes are higher in this group," remarked Phillips contemporary specialist Michael McGinnis. Big-ticket items in this category included a seven-foot-tall, 1961 Art Brut rendering of a Ford and a Citroen by Jean Dubuffet that sold for $2,972,500 (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000); a seven-foot-tall blue monochrome from 1955 by Yves Klein that went for $2,642,000 (est. $3 million-$4 million); and a painting begun in Munich in 1964 and completed in Rome in 1972 by Cy Twombly for $1,542,500 (est. $1.5 million-$2 million).
The salesroom was packed with a standing-room-only crowd that included high-profile collectors like Peter Brant, Martin Margulies and Don Rubell and leading dealers like Larry Gagosian, Iwan Wirth, Lucy Mitchell-Innes and her husband David Nash. To the auction-room observer, Wirth seemed to have snagged the Peyton, while Brant bid a winning $1,050,000 for Jean-Michel Basquiat's seven-foot-long, 1982 Baby Boom. One or the other won the 1973 Andy Warhol Mao, also for $1,050,000 at the hammer. Soho dealer Jack Tilton was busy, seemingly winning the Ofili, plus a string of lights by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres for $80,000 bid (an edition of 24). Many top lots went to phone bidders, and needless to say, the auction house does not reveal the identities of its clients.
Other notable prices included $332,500 (est. $300,000-$350,000) for a ca. 8 x 11 foot "spot" painting in shades of gray by Damien Hirst and $48,300 (est. $40,000-$60,000) for a 1992 photo of a starry night sky by Thomas Ruff. Before selling the Ruff, de Pury announced that it had a defect ("at first we thought it was another star, then we determined that it was serious") and that the artist had agreed to replace the lot after the sale with another work that was promised to be exactly the same.
For complete, illustrated results of the Phillips auction, see Artnet.com's "hot auctions."