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Nov. 9, 2010 

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Did auctioneer Simone de Pury tone down his trademark ebullience for the inauguration of the glass-walled two-story Phillips de Pury and Company showroom at 57th Street and Park Avenue on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, kicking off four days of contemporary art auctions in New York?

Perhaps. Phillips’ boxy, slightly claustrophobic space isn’t quite as deluxe as the big two auction houses, which do maybe ten times the business. It has columns, for one thing, which allowed de Pury to display a bit of his auctioneer savoir faire, as he sold one lot to "the man behind the column" (a Cy Twombly drawing, for $580,000 at the hammer, or $698,500 with premium).

But the usual gaggle of dealers and collectors was on hand, and they did their share of bidding, as we shall see. Even artist Takashi Murakami came to watch, standing quietly at the back of the room, hands folded, consulting the auction’s free mini-catalogue (about the size of a Gallery Guide).

Murakami saw his life-sized sculpture of a yummy, very buxom Miss Ko (1997) sell for $6.8 million to Jose Mugrabi, sitting towards the front of the room, rapidly chewing, with his black-framed glasses pushed up on his forehead. (Murakami was not the consignor, according to the auction house.)

The Mugrabi clan is not known to deal in Murakami works, so presumably the purchase was for a friend (rather than to push the price up a few notches randomly, as one cynical observer suggested, just because he knew that the other bidder, on the phone with Phillips specialist Michaela Neumeister, would pay whatever it took).

But we get ahead of ourselves. The sale totaled $137 million, in the middle of its presale estimate, with 52 of 59 lots selling, certainly the highest sum for a Phillips auction in several years. The largest part came from the first 33 lots, gathered together by former auction-house hand and François Pinault advisor Philippe Segalot. Dubbed "Carte Blanche," the sale moved all but three of its 33 lots, for a total of $117 million.

Many works sold to anonymous bidders on the phone to Segalot himself, prompting Bloomberg auction reporter Lindsay Pollock to ask at the post-sale press conference whether Segalot might do better to cut Phillips out entirely. "Don’t give him any ideas," joked Phillips contemporary art specialist Michael McGinnis. At least he seemed to be joking.

The top lot, by far, was Andy Warhol’s much-exhibited Men in Her Life (1962), a large black-and-white grid that repeats a Life magazine photo of Elizabeth Taylor with both Mike Todd and Eddie Fisher, which sold for $63.4 million to a phone bidder. The presale estimate was $40 million.

The work actually sold at $56.5 million at the hammer -- a cut bid, which was for once successful, saving the billionaire buyer $500,000. Mugrabi was the seller of the Warhol, according to press reports.

De Pury knocked down the lot after a long phone duel between Neumeister and Segalot, with the price climbing in resolute $1 million jumps, while the Warholmaniacs in the audience -- Peter Brant, Mugrabi, Aby Rosen -- sat quietly and watched. The work’s provenance includes Thomas Ammann Fine Art, and Doris Ammann was on hand, viewing the proceedings from one of the first few rows.

Brant also watched, rather stony-faced, as Maurizio Cattelan’s lifelike nude "figurehead" of his wife, Stephanie Seymour, topless with hands covering her breasts, sold to an unidentified bidder in the back of the room for $2.4 million (est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000). Brant owns one of the edition of four, but was not the consignor. The buyer, once again, was Jose Mugrabi, according to observers in the room.

Successful buyers in the room included dealer Marc Jancou, whose wife did the bidding, winning Louise Lawler’s unintentionally surrealist Woman with Picasso (1986) for $146,500, above the presale high estimate of $120,000.

Dominique Levy of L&M Arts snagged a picturesque Yves Klein sculpture, SE 161 (1959), which looks rather like a blue flower, for $1,314,500 (est. $700,000-$900,000), and the Baer Faxt identified the buyer of Roy Lichtenstein’s 1979 Two Figures, Indian for $3.9 million as Stewart Rahr, the "No. 1 King of All Fun" (according to Forbes), who heads Kinray, the world’s largest drug wholesaler.

Larry Gagosian, who was sitting with his gallery director Victoria Gelfand, was the winning bidder for Charles Ray’s 1988 Ink Drawing ($962,500), the same artist’s plaster relief Wet Paint from 2008 ($422,500) and Cady Noland’s 1989 Trashed Mailbox ($422,500). Neither artist is on the gallery’s current list of "artists exhibited."

The sale set new auction records for Felix Gonzalez-Torres ($4,480,000), Thomas Schütte ($4,114,500), Cindy Sherman ($2,688,000), Rudolf Stingel ($2,576,000), Robert Morris ($1,120,056), Lee Lozano ($600,000), Daniel Buren ($540,000), Wade Guyton ($300,000) and Martin Creed ($96,000).

Also present at Phillips’ inaugural sale was Abdi Farrah, the young Pittsburgh artist who was the winner of this year’s Bravo television game show Work of Art. Part of the prize was to have one of his artworks sold at auction, and his dramatic and deft self-portrait, Baptism (2010), is slated to kick off Phillips’ day sale at 10 am today. The auction takes place at Phillips’ 15th Street showroom, which coincidentally has the same street number at both locations -- 450 -- as de Pury was happy to point out.

An eight-foot-wide prone figure viewed from the side, Baptism is done in charcoal, dirt and black pigment on paper, and carries a presale estimate of $6,000-$8,000. Its successful sale could affirm the validity of Work of Art -- perhaps it wasn’t "just a game show" after all -- and demonstrate once again the effect of pop celebrity in the rarified art market.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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