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Art Market Watch

by Rachel Corbett
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Has Phillips de Pury & Company finally arrived as a real force in the New York auction world? A year ago, the firm's evening sale of contemporary art totaled $137 million, thanks to the controversial ministrations of dealer Philippe Ségalot and a $63.4 million Andy Warhol painting of Liz Taylor and the Men in Her Life (1962). Six months ago, in the May contemporary sales, Phillips did a much more modest $38 million.

Last night, Nov. 7, 2011, the Phillips total was a tempered $71,292,500, just surpassing its $66,560,000 presale low estimate, with 37 of 44 lots selling, or 84 percent. The healthy total clearly makes Phillips a real player, but many observers remain suspicious. A good number of the lots seemed to draw only a single bid, placed for unseen clients by auction-house specialists, possibly the result of presale guarantees.

“The problem is that it looks curious to a knowledgeable onlooker,” said Levin Art Group director Todd Levin. “You don’t know if it really sold to an objective third party or if the house just bought it in, so we have to view it with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

The top lot of the night, Cy Twombly’s Untitled painting of red loop-de-loops from 2006, was bought by Phillips’ worldwide director of contemporary art Michael McGinniss, apparently on the phone to a client, for $9,042,500, just within the presale estimate. McGinniss also bought the second most expensive lot, Andy Warhol’s Nine Gold Marilyns (1980), which hung on the wall behind de Pury, for $7,922,500, just above the presale low estimate of $7 million.

Later on, Phillips’ Moscow specialist Svetlana Marich snagged man-of-the-moment Maurizio Cattelan’s upside-down cops sculpture, Frank and Jamie (2002) for $2,322,500. Done in an edition of three, the work has appeared at auction five times, most recently selling a year ago for $1.6 million. That's an increase of more than 40 percent in one year -- a pretty good (if theoretical) return?  

Other top lots going to phone bidders included Roy Lichtenstein’s stripe-and-Benday-dot flag, Forms in Space (1985), which sold for $1,538,500, and Damien Hirst’s painting 20 Pills (2004-05), which sold for $1,202,500, comfortably within its presale estimate.

Some buyers were in the room, of course. Uber-collector David Nahmad took home Alexander Calder's late-career three-legged Trepied (1972), for $5,682,500. And fashionista Tommy Hilfiger bought Damien Hirst's Disintegration – The Crown of Life (2006), a nine-foot-tall butterfly painting shaped like a gothic church window, for $1,426,500.

Megadealer Larry Gagosian bought the two-plate steel sculpture from Richard Serra for $2,322,500 (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million), on the condition that “the buyer and artist agree on the site, manner and position in which it is to be displayed,” de Pury said. The sale isn't the first time an outdoor sculpture by Serra has been sold at auction, but it is viewed as a significant development all the same.

The overall mood stayed steady but unenthusiastic throughout the night, with buyers only rarely willing to meet or surpass the low estimates, which  “were about 20 percent too aggressive,” according to Levin, who thought the best buys of the night were Ellsworth Kelly’s 1968 cube painting for $2,210,500 and a porch painting for $182,500 by Richard Artschwager, who has a major traveling retrospective coming up next fall at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Among the unsold lots were a Warhol dollar-sign canvas, estimated at $500,000-$700,000, and a rather drab Philip Guston painting, Path III (1960), estimated at $1.5 million-$2.5 million. “In terms of quality, unless you’re in a market where you can throw anything against the wall and it sells, you’re in a tough bind. Unfortunately, we’re in a shit-and-masterpieces market -- a trophy-hunting market -- so it’s tough,” Levin added.

Not everyone was so pessimistic, however. “To record $70-plus million in one evening, in one city, in one collecting category, considering everything that's going on in the world and with the global economy, is miraculous,” said Lowell Pettit of Pettit Art Partners.

And the spirit was far more energetic during the benefit auction held for the Guggenheim Foundation just before the contemporary sale. That reeled in a total of $2,682,000, well above its $1.56 million-$2.2 million estimate, and with all but one of the 22 lots selling. The top lot was Cattelan’s series of 11 taxidermy pigeons, Others (2011), which sold for $580,000 to Chicago collector Stefan Edlis. And bad-boy artist Nate Lowman made his auction record with This Marilyn, a vague oil-on-linen semblance of the movie star, made this year, which quadrupled its high estimate and sold for $240,000.

The sale ended in a bit of frantic triumph, as bidders vied for lots by two of the avant-garde art scene's hottest properties. A large Sterling Ruby spray-paint canvas, estimated at $100,000-$150,000, had bidders upping their prices in $20,000 increments faster than de Pury could follow. “All over the place! All over the place!” he beamed. The painting finally sold for $326,500. That was followed by the final lot, an electroplated silver canvas by infant auction star Jacob Kassay, selling for $206,500, beyond its $100,000 estimate.

Phillips de Pury no doubt benefited from being the first of three houses to hold its contemporary art sales this week -- usually the company goes last. But then, bidders are no doubt also saving some steam for the big-league auctions at Christie’s tonight, and Sotheby’s on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email