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Nov. 14, 2007 

You go to Christie’s and Sotheby’s to watch the money. You go to Phillips, de Pury & Co. to watch star auctioneer Simon de Pury. Slim and bright-eyed, de Pury is the very picture of animation, presiding from his translucent white podium over a noisy, concrete-floored salesroom that seems more like a cocktail party (sans cocktails) than a gathering where serious money is spent. His Swiss accent is charming and he exercises it with relish, taking obvious pleasure in pronouncing the mellifluous names of his many specialists -- Aileen Agopian, Michaela Neumeister, Chin Chin Yap, Amanda Corriero -- as he fields their telephone bids.

Are the experts on the phones actually encouraged to wave their arms and hop up and down in excitement? It certainly adds to the sense of manic theater. Drollery is part of de Pury’s act, too, as he suddenly drops his voice an octave in his singsong auctioneer chant. He cajoles and jokes, asking, "You haven’t changed your mind?" as he seeks one more bid (and gets it), and chiding a dealer to "try another one of your mini-mini steps," a reference to bidders who want to raise the bid by only a small increment. At other times he shushes the audience, which seems to feel free to chat throughout.

Despite all this, de Pury conducts the fastest auction around, and a good thing it is, too, since the room was half-empty well before the end of the firm’s evening contemporary sale on Nov. 15, 2007. No wonder, since the sale was a monster, containing over 130 lots in all, including a 50-lot "warm-up" benefit auction for the New Museum of Contemporary Art. "It should help put us over the top of our $60 million capital campaign," said museum director Lisa Phillips.

And indeed it did. The benefit was 100 percent sold -- Phillips, de Pury & Co. collected no buyer’s premium, as de Pury frequently reminded hesitant bidders, and no sales tax would be due for works bought by New York residents -- and the sale totaled an impressive $8,216,000, above the presale high estimate of $6 million. "A brilliant, brilliant achievement from someone named Phillips!" exclaimed de Pury, not joking at all.

All the works in the sale were donated by the artists, and some were custom-made for the benefit. Participants ranged from John Waters (whose rubber snake Slimy sold for $6,000) and Martha Rosler ($12,000) to John Currin ($140,000), Marlene Dumas ($170,000), Barbara Kruger ($280,000) and Jeff Koons ($1,050,000).

Among the top lots in the benefit was a Richard Prince Untitled (Nurse) painting from 2006 that sold at $1,900,000, well above its presale high estimate of $1.2 million, to a young blonde woman standing in the back of the room.

The contemporary art sale proper followed immediately. It totaled $42,316,600, with 69 of 81 lots selling, or 85 percent. In a post-auction press conference, de Pury thanked both his staff and the audience for their endurance, and noted that his boutique auction firm had already more than doubled the turnover from last year, with  revenues approaching $270 million.

The top lot in the sale was a late Willem de Kooning abstraction, Untitled XVI (1982), which sold to a telephone bidder for $5,865,000; underbidder was Dominque Levy from L&M Arts, which is currently presenting an exhibition of de Kooning paintings from this period. A close second was another Richard Prince nurse painting, this one titled Registered Nurse and dating from 2002, which sold for $4,297,000, also to a phone bidder.

The auction set new records for Rudolf Stingel ($1,945,000), Mark Grotjahn ($937,000), Charles Bell ($769,000), Steven Parrino ($657,000), Zan Wang ($337,000), Wim Delvoye ($319,000), Cady Noland ($289,000) and Jules de Balincourt ($265,000).

Successful bidders included Manhattan dealer Philippe Segalot, who snapped up the Stingel; Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Galllery, who got the Grotjahn (speaking into a cell phone that he cupped with both hands, against the noisy room); and Chelsea dealer Robert Goff, who won the de Balincourt painting.

Other winning bidders included London dealer Jay Jopling, who purchased a 1994 Richard Prince Untitled (Protest Painting) for $385,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000), and Alberto Mugrabi, who won Damien Hirst’s beautiful spin painting, Beautiful Where Did All the Color Go Painting (1994) for $690,000.

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