Art Market

A $15-million Jean-Michel Basquiat led Phillips’s solid evening sale in New York.

Benjamin Sutton
Nov 15, 2019 4:39PM, via Artsy

The 20th Century & Contemporary Art evening sale at Phillips on November 14. Courtesy Phillips.

For its last major auction in its second-floor salesroom at Park Avenue and 57th Street—before it relocates to a swanky new subterranean bidding arena next spring—Phillips logged a muted but solid $108.1-million sale of 20th century and contemporary art on Thursday evening. Despite measured bidding on the night’s lots, the total was higher than equivalent sales a year ago and last May. The evening achieved a sell-through rate of 95 percent by lot, with just two of the evening’s 42 lots failing to sell; 15 of them sold for hammer prices above their low estimates.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring, 1981. Sold for $15 million. Courtesy Phillips.

Top lots:

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Ring (1981) was the night’s top lot, as expected, with multiple bidders in the salesroom and on the phones vying for the large red painting of a boxer wielding a spear. The knockout bid of $13 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $10 million to $15 million, came out to $15 million with fees.

Philip Guston, Smoking II, 1973. Sold for $7.6 million. Courtesy Phillips.

  • Philip Guston’s Smoking II (1973) was a slow burn. The lot lurched along to its low estimate of $6 million, where bidding stalled, and auctioneer Henry Highley brought down the hammer. With fees, the price came to $7.6 million. The following lot, another Guston, At the Table (1967), fared similarly, hammering down at its low estimate of $1.8 million ($2.1 million with fees).
  • Andy Warhol’s Late Four-Foot Flowers (1967) managed to beat its low estimate of $6 million, selling for a hammer price of $6.3 million, or $7.4 million with fees. The winning phone bidder also snapped up the previous lot, Roy Lichtenstein’s Haystacks (1968), which surpassed its high estimate of $700,000 to sell for a hammer price of $800,000, or $980,000 with fees.

Andy Warhol, Late Four-Foot Flowers, 1967. Sold for $7.4 million. Courtesy Phillips.

While Thursday’s sale felt decidedly routine, the auction house did have one surprise in store: the cheeky doctor’s office scene Before the Shot from 1958, a painting by Norman Rockwell, an artist more commonly featured in sale of American art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Phillips’s wager paid off, with the work handily surpassing its low estimate of $2.5 million to sell for a hammer price of $3.9 million, or $4.7 million with fees, making it the night’s fifth-biggest lot. Its adventurous buyer is “very much a contemporary art collector,” Phillips chairwoman Cheyenne Westphal said after the sale.

Norman Rockwell, Before the Shot, 1958. Sold for $4.7 million. Courtesy Phillips.

The auction set one new auction record, for the work of New York painter Sean Scully. His Red Bar (2003–04) sold for a hammer price of $1.45 million, or $1.7 million with fees, to a buyer bidding online from Hong Kong. That result was just enough to surpass the artist’s previous auction record, set during an auction in Hong Kong earlier this year.

Sean Scully, Red Bar, 2003–04. Sold for $1.7 million. Courtesy Phillips.

Though there were few fireworks, the sale capped a successful week for Edward Dolman, Phillips’s CEO. The day before, the house had held its most successful day sale ever, bringing in $40.2 million and setting new auction records for nine artists.

“This sale was up 22 percent on last year, and this follows a record-setting day sale yesterday,” Dolman said at a press briefing after the evening sale. “We’re really seeing the fruits of the team we’ve brought on, that even in a shrinking art market, we’re still continuing to grow.”

Benjamin Sutton