On Thursday, Phillips staged its marquee contemporary evening sale with a night of high results lead by staple names like Joan Mitchell and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The sale comes on the heels of a five-hour long live-streamed global evening sale at Sotheby’s that brought in an excess of $360 million held on Monday, securing a long-awaited reassurance in the market following the pandemic’s overhaul of the traditional auction schedule. The evening’s hour-long sale brought 25 lots lead by auctioneer, Henry Highley, and saw an overall 100 percent sell-through rate; the auction realized a total figure of $41 million, meeting the high pre-sale estimate. The day sale total rang in at $10.2 million sold 87 percent by lot.
The leading lot of the night was Joan Mitchell’s canvas Noël featuring the artist’s thick, impasto drip field scheme from the early 1960s, consigned from an American collection. The painting met its reserve opening bidding at $8 million quickly, but drew only six bids to meet its pre-sale value of $9.5 million at the hammer. The final price was $11.1 million. In a press conference following the auction, Robert Manley dubbed the work “an auctioneer’s dream.” He noted that two bidders ultimately competed for the work, calling the end result a “knockout painting, for a knockout price.” The historic work came to the market after nearly three decades in the same hands. It was bought by the seller in 1995 and the Phillips sale marks its debut auction. The high result achieved for the Mitchell follows the sale of the storied Ginny Williams collection at Sotheby’s that reopened the market with aggressive remote bidding on Monday—bringing in new records for female postwar stars like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler—who have long been undervalued next to their male contemporaries.
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In the post-sale press conference, the executive team expressed relief at the market activity seen this week. “Tonight’s sale was a resounding statement about the strength and resilience of our market,” said Phillips CEO Edward Dolman, claiming the results show a pent up demand for art as a result of the pandemic. “There is a significant amount of money on the sidelines waiting for a chance to get back into the art market and invest in art” added Dolman, who noted that although the numbers grossed in today’s total are lower than seen in previous years due to seller concerns in the wake of the global pandemic, the “message to consignors is this is the time to sell.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s colossal work on paper Victor 25448, at 6 feet by 11 feet also drew tepid results with only 4 bids between Manley and Meity Heiden, Phillips’s deputy chairwoman and head of private sales. The painting hammered at its low estimate of $8 million, ultimately achieving $9.25 million with the buyer’s fee included, but failed to meet its high estimate of $12 million. The work’s sale comes on the heels of strong demand for Basquiat’s works on paper, which saw a new record in Sotheby’s June 29 auction, where Basquiat’s Untitled (Head) realized a total sale price of $15.2 million. Phillips two top lots seemed to have been met with the challenge of coming to the market after Sotheby’s sales that supplied demand for similar works by both Mitchell and Basquiat.
Helen Frankenthaler’s 1967 canvas Head of the Meadow was among the success stories of the night, far surpassing its pre-sale expectation of $600,000 to $800,000; it hammered at $2.5 million and made a total sale price with the buyer’s fee at $3 million. The work came in at the second highest price for a work by the artist under the $7.9 million achieved for Royal Fireworks in Sotheby’s sale, tying with her second auction record for Blue Reach, from 1978, that sold in May 2018 at Sotheby’s.
“We’ve never had a business getting season like this season,” Manley said in a statement. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the online sales and private sales” noted Manley who claimed the sale was intentional in its targeting of younger contemporary artists, Black artists, and women artists,” adding, “I feel we bet on the right voices.”
George Condo’s 2009 Stump Head fetched $1.1 million landing at the low end of its pre-sale expectation of $900,000–$1.2 million. Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s large-scale outdoor sculpture of a woman consigned from a private collection in Beverly Hills brought in $1 million against an estimate of $800,000–$1.2 million. Works from the postwar era saw less demand in the sale against the contemporary cutting edge. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, a 1958 drawing by Charles White, a pillar of Black art history, brought in $850,000 against an estimate of $700,000–$1 million, but failed to hammer at its low estimate. Francis Picabia’s Portrait de femme from the early 1940s sold for $350,000 with buyer’s premium reaching its high estimate.
Elsewhere in the sale, Sturtevant, known for her appropriations of famous art historical works, saw her Stella Gran Cairo, a riff on Frank Stella’s geometric works, came in at $620,000, surpassing its estimate of $400,000–$600,000.
Other points in the sale brought young talent fresh off the primary market to the auction’s global audience, establishing three new records for emerging names. Dolman noted the sale showed an “extraordinary thirst for the young and the new that seems undimmed” among the collector base. Matthew Wong’s Mood Room (2018) presented a rare opportunity for buyers to secure a work hard won on the marketplace. The late artist, who was nearing the brink of stardom up until his suicide in fall 2019, saw a staggering new record in Sotheby’s contemporary auction on Monday, when his Realm of Appearances, which also featured in his seminal 2018 show at New York’s Karma gallery, sold for $1.82 million, besting its high pre-sale expectation of $80,000 more than 22 times over. Mood Room was consigned by a collector based in Aspen and sold for $848,000 with buyer’s premium at more than 10 times its high estimate $80,000. “Given the scarcity of works on the primary market, collectors have eagerly turned to the secondary market to acquire works by the artist,” said Amanda Lo Iacono, Phillips head of evening sale in New York in an interview, adding that Mood Room “draws particular allusions with Matisse, which makes it appealing to modern and contemporary collectors alike.”
Lucas Arrada’s neutral gray canvas from 2014 went for $350,000 with buyer’s premium, hammering at double its high estimate of $120,000 and going to an online buyer in Switzerland.
A painting by 34-year-old American artist Christina Quarles called Placed, which the seller purchased in 2017, the same year it was completed, saw competitive demand, drawing 18 bids and hammering at $320,000 against an estimate of $70,000–$100,000. The work set a new record for the artist. The previous $275,000 record was set at Phillips New York in 2019 with the sale of Moon. Amoako Boafo, whose painting The Lemon Bathing Suit set his record at more than $800,000 during Phillips’s February New Now sale, was also featured among the emerging names in the sale. His newly made portrait Joy in Purple (2019) brought in $668,000, far surpassing its pre-sale estimate of $50,000–$70,000.
A work by Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, a Ghanian-born, Oregon-based figurative painter who is a close friend of Boafo, made the artist’s auction debut at Phillips. Shade of Black, made in 2018, went for $250,000, besting its low estimate of $20,000 12 times over. In an interview, Bennett Roberts, co-owner of Quaioce’s sole gallery, Los Angeles’s Robert Projects (where the artist made his American debut in the solo show Black Like Me in January 2020), expressed frustration over the market flipping that took place at the sale. The dealer confirmed he would be asking for $15,000–$20,000 for a painting of the same size and subject matter.
“What does it mean for an artist?” asked Robert, who noted that the auction price was established before Quaioce even had a proper New York debut. “That ends up being a really bad metric.”
Quaicoe is not the only artist of Roberts’ that saw high demand in Phillips’ auction. Boafo, to whom Roberts’ also gave his first solo show, also resurfaced in the evening sale session with a high result. In a string of serendipity, Kehinde Wiley, with whom Roberts began working in 2000, first introduced the dealer to Amoako Boafo; and Boafo then introduced the dealer to his friend and fellow painter Quaicoe. Roberts said the two artists worked side by side for years while studying in Ghana.
“Was I shocked? Yes,” the dealer said of the sale. “It’s way too early. I think it’s by virtue of his magnificent talent. He didn’t just spring out—he had many years of painting where no one cared at all, he couldn’t get a studio visit, they had no attention paid to him.”
Noting the aggressive market interest in Black and African artists as “a new phenomenon,” Roberts added that the high market numbers are a separate concern from the artist’s long-term development. “We don’t chase the money, we focus on the talent being survivable over interests, or tastes, or passion,” Roberts said. The dealer, who has been in the business for more than three decades and who garnered a reputation for cultivating young talent with staying power, said in the year 2000, in which he began dealing Wiley’s work at the start of his career “none of this happened so quickly,” referring to auction hype driving up value. “It was very difficult, we had many days that we really had to fight the prejudices,” Roberts said of dealing Wiley’s work two decades ago.
Another artist on Roberts’s roster, Titus Kaphar, saw his portrait of a woman haloed in red thread from his “Vesper Project” series come up for sale at Phillips. The work saw advance bidding and sparked strong momentum, selling for $187,500—more than four times its pre-sale estimate of $40,000—and setting a new auction record for the artist. Kaphar’s work has spiked demand following several recent milestones: he was featured as the cover artist of Time magazine’s June protest issue; his painting Braiding Possibility sold privately for $300,000 in May at Gagosian, which recently added him to his roster; and a new auction record also came in for Kaphar this week with the sale of a 2015 drawing that sold for $131,250, far surpassing its pre-sale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000.
The 44 year-old Tehran-born painter Ali Banisadr’s large-scale work Motherboard (2013) went for $572,000, landing within its estimate of $400,000–$600,000 and setting a new record price for the artist. The price came in above the $557,000 achieved for the artist’s 2011 canvas The Chase, which sold in a Sotheby’s contemporary art sale in Doha, Qatar, in October 2014, where the work more than doubled its high estimate of $250,000.
Another moment in the sale that brought a new threshold for an emerging name was the sale of American artist Robert Nava’s menacing diptych The Tunnel, made in 2019. At less than a year old, the work featuring a pair of red eyes and black grimace also saw high bids past its pre-sale low estimate of $40,000, bringing in a total of $162,000, doubling its high estimate of $60,000.
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