Phillips sets new records for Alex Katz, Simone Leigh, and more at $31.6-million sale.

Benjamin Sutton
Oct 2, 2019 10:57PM, via Artsy

Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella I, 1972. Courtesy of Phillips.

The London auction houses’ marquee Frieze Week sales got off to a promising start Wednesday night at Phillips, whose auction of 20th Century and Contemporary Art brought in a hammer total of £21.1 million ($25.9 million), or £25.8 million ($31.6 million) with fees, an increase of 28 percent over the same sale last year. That result was squarely within the pre-sale range for the evening, which was £17.1 million to £24.5 million ($21 million–30 million); estimates do not include auction house fees, making the hammer total a clearer reflection of a sale’s success. Fears about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts to avert a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month didn’t deter bidders at the Phillips salesroom on Berkeley Square.

“Here we are with Brexit swirling around us, and yet the world sees London as a good place to buy right now—the price of the pound may have something to do with that,” Phillips Chairman and CEO Edward Dolman said after the sale, alluding to the current exchange rate, which may make bidding in pounds more appealing to foreign buyers. “It’s the Boris effect.”

The sale saw particularly fevered bidding in the early going, with the first five lots each selling for more than double their high estimates and setting new auction records for three artists—Simone Leigh, Derek Fordjour, and Sanya Kantarovsky. The opening suite also marked an auspicious secondary market debut for rising star Nathaniel Mary Quinn, whose fragmented painting of a fedora-wearing figure, Over Yonder (2015), eclipsed its high estimate of £60,000 ($73,000) to hammer down at £170,000 ($208,000). With fees, the price came to £212,500 ($260,000). Competition died down after the opening flurry, but spiked again when the Alex Katz painting on the catalog cover came up for sale.

Top Lots

  • Alex Katz’s 1972 portrait of his wife Ada caught in what looks like quintessential London weather, Blue Umbrella I, was the subject of a protracted bidding war between multiple phone bidders and a woman in the salesroom. The painting quickly surpassed its high estimate of £1.2 million ($1.4 million) and ultimately sold to a bidder on the line with Phillips client advisory director Philae Knight for a hammer price of £2.8 million ($3.4 million), or £3.375 million ($4.1 million) with fees—more than triple the previous auction record for a work by Katz.
  • Hurvin Anderson’s Beaver Lake (1998), an enormous painting of two figures in a wintry landscape that loomed over the salesroom, sold right within its pre-sale estimate range of £1.5 million to £2 million ($1.8 million–2.4 million), with competition between bidders on the phone and another in the room driving the work up to its hammer price of £1.8 million ($2.2 million), or £2.175 ($2.6 million) with fees. The impressive result was nonetheless well shy of the Birmingham-born painter’s auction record of £2.6 million ($3.4 million) set at Christie’s in October 2017.
  • Mark Bradford’s Value 35 (2010) hung over auctioneer Henry Highley’s right shoulder during the sale, and provoked a protracted bidding war. Eventually, after a rogue attendee briefly drove the price up to £1.65 million ($2 million) and then made a dash, the work sold to another buyer on the line with Knight, for a hammer price of £1.6 million ($1.9 million), or £1.935 million ($2.3 million) with fees.

Bidders in the room, on the phones with specialists, and online competed for most of the lots, with only two of the 43 works consigned going unsold. Accounting for the one lot withdrawn, a Mary Corse painting, the evening notched a sell-through rate of 95 percent by lot. In all, the sale set new auction records for five artists—the four already mentioned, and the Belgian abstract painter Raoul de Keyser, whose Kabinet (1989–90) sold within its pre-sale estimate range for a hammer price of £130,000 ($159,000), or £162,500 ($199,000) with fees. In all, 30 percent of the lots sold for hammer prices above their high estimates.

“Our sale was very well matched to the current climate and collecting tastes,” Dolman said. Despite the hand-wringing over Brexit and fears the U.S.–China trade war could set off a global recession, “2019 might not be so bad after all.”

The Frieze Week sales continue Thursday with the 20th Century and Contemporary Art day sale at Phillips and the Contemporary Art evening sale at Sotheby’s.

Benjamin Sutton