Phillips's $139 Million Sale Is Its Biggest Ever

No longer the place to buy but not sell, Phillips has converted its biggest doubters


Although still dwarfed by its competitors, each season Phillips Auction House makes progress toward growth. Wednesday night’s all-time high Evening sale total crept up on the team at Phillips which is probably more of an indication of their growth than the absolute number. With the addition of a Luc Tuymans transacting just after the sale at $1.25 million, the sale’s total came in at $139,165,950 with 44 of the 46 lots offered sold and two lots (works by Milton Avery and Barkley Hendricks) withdrawn before the sale.

Phillips is known for breaking the markets of artists who could be considered emerging or even otherwise. That was demonstrated in the sale when records were set for the greatly in demand Shara HughesEwa Juszkiewicz and Raymond PettibonHughes’s Inside Outside from 2018 was estimated at $250,000 but no one took that number seriously. Just weeks earlier in London, one of her works sold for nearly $1.2 million building on the Hong Kong sale of Pink Morning for $645k.

Ewa Juskiewicz was also on a roll that began with momentum in London. Girl in Blue from 2013 sold for $730k last night. A month ago, Grove from 2014 sold fro $612,621. Two days earlier, Maria from 2013 made $494k.

Raymond Pettibon isn’t an emerging talent, but his record comes on the heels of another surfer making $2.6 million in May. This one at Phillips sold for $3.4 million with fees. Phillips had two more surfers in their day sale which sold for $877,000 and $1.022m both against a $300k low estimate..

Phillips was also able to achieve the first sales of Honor Titus for $163,800 to a Korean couple who arrived early enough to the sale room to be given paddle number 1 for the sale. Ghanaian Kwesi Botchwey also debuted with Green Sofa which made $214,200 Phillips was also able to secure what might be called confirmation prices for a number of artists whose markets are still not quite firm. For example, Titus Kaphar made his third highest price at $816,500Jadé Fadojutimi made her fourth highest price at $877,000Amy Sherald’s Welfare Queen made her second highest price of $3.9 million after Phillips had achieved a record last year and a confirmation price this June.

One of the most sought-after artists in the primary market, Hauser + Wirth’s Avery Singer posted her second highest price at auction with European Ego Ideal selling for $4.02 million. Phillips’s advisory head Kevie Yang was the winning telephone. Another artist who seems to have nearly inexhaustible demand at auction is Emily Mae Smith. Phillips scored her second highest price to date in this sale too. Feast and Famine sold for $1.36 million.

Not every one of these efforts succeeded. An early Peter Saul was on offer, but it only sold at the low estimate of $350,000 or $441,000 with fees. That was still good enough to be Saul’s fourth highest price at auction.

The vast majority of the sale’s value was in the upper ranges which is not what one traditionally thinks of when thinking of Phillips. That’s clearly changing. The top ten lots accounted for a little more than 63% of the total. With the exception of Avery Singer, these artists were a wide range of established names. Francis Bacon’s Pope with Owls sold to the guarantor for $33 million. With refreshing frankness, Phillips’s Jean-Paul Engelen expressed his disappointment and dismay that the work was unable to attract bids. Nonetheless, price accounted for a substantial portion of Phillips’s overall total. One of Joan Mitchell’s last paintings saw deep and sustained bidding taking the work from a $4 million low estimate to a $10 million hammer price. The final fee of $11.87 million made it Mitchell’s eighth highest auction price.

There was serious competition for one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painted doors. The final hammer price was a mid-estimate $7.1 million but the bidding was protracted. Another work that saw wide and sustained bidding, often in small increments, was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Crab’s Claw Ginger Hawaii from the artist’s Dole-sponsored trip. At $7.748 million, that work slid into seventh position in O’Keeffe’s top ten auction prices list besting a work sold just a few days before.

The thirst for Cecily Brown’s naughty abstract paintings seems to be unslakable. Phillips put an untitled work from 2007 up with a $3.5 million estimate. The bidding seemed to come from all over but it eventually sold for $5.05 million hammer which works out to $6.14 million with fees.

Another strong performer was Pierre Bonnard’s Panier de fruit from 1946 which was once owned by the Reader’s Digest corporate collection. It also happened to have been loaned by the artist to Pierre Matisse, a fact Phillips was not shy about sharing. Whatever the reason, the bidding for the work estimated at $2 million carried it up to $4.1 million which translates into $4.99 million all in.

Last night’s success wasn’t particularly new; and it didn’t happen overnight. Phillips is now run by its second CEO since the present owners took over. Though Edward Dolman is not gone, he has put his former colleague Stephen Brooks in his place. Brooks was quick to credit Dolman with the leadership resulting in last night’s sale.

What may not have been noticed by the buyers and bidders is that some former critics of the auction house have become converts. In the past, Phillips had been criticized as a house with aspirational estimates which gave it the feeling of a great place to pick up bargains but, perhaps, a poor place to sell. A small Christopher Wool word painting sold at Phillips last night. The tiny work made $1.179 million, more than some of the larger Wools that appeared at other houses these last two weeks, leading Phillips' Robert Manley to joke that the work was the most valuable Wool per square inch.

The consignor was a former critic.

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