Art Market

Subdued Week of London Auctions Ends with £36.4 Million Contemporary Art Sale at Phillips

Nate Freeman
Mar 7, 2019 11:39PM

Gerhard Richter, Düsenjäger, 1963. Courtesy of Phillips.

A Gerhard Richter painting of a fighter jet sold for £15.5 million ($20.4 million) at Phillips’s Berkeley Square headquarters in London on Thursday night, contributing nearly half of the £36.4 million ($47.9 million) total for the house’s evening sale of 20th-century and contemporary art. Before fees were added, the night’s total was £31.3 million ($41.1 million), beating out the pre-sale low estimate of £27.3 million ($35.9 million), and had a sell-through rate of 89 percent by lot.

But Thursday night’s result paled in comparison to last year’s equivalent sale, when a bidding war on Pablo Picasso’s Le Dormeuse (1932) propelled it to double its high estimate, selling for a hammer price of £37 million ($48.6 million), or £41.8 million ($54.9 million) with fees. It contributed to a £97.8 million ($135.1 million) sale total, making it the biggest sale in Phillips history.

Top lots

Tschabalala Self, Lilith, 2015. Courtesy of Phillips.

Roy Lichtenstein, Girl in Mirror, 1964. Courtesy of Phillips.

  • Gerhard Richter’s Düsenjäger (1963), which sold for a hammer price of £13.5 million ($17.7 million) to the client on the phone with Robert Manley, who is the house’s worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art, beating out bidders in the room and other specialists. The price was right in the middle of its estimate range, which was from £10 million ($13.1 million) to £15 million ($19.7 million). The price, with fees, was £15.5 million ($20.3 million). Hopefully, this ends a long saga for Phillips, which first received the Richter when it was consigned, reportedly by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, in the fall of 2016. It was purchased at auction in New York by Beijing billionaire Zhang Chang for $24 million, but the collector never paid, and Phillips had to sue to get the funds back. After a settlement, the house was left with the jet-plane painting and had to offer it again, this time at a lower price point. Here’s hoping whoever was on the phone with Manley actually has the cash to pay.
  • Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl in Mirror (1964), which sold to the absentee bidder, presumably the third-party guarantor of the work, for a £4.5 million ($5.9 million) hammer, right at the low estimate. With fees, the price came to £4.8 million ($6.3 million). The consignor bought the work at Christie’s New York in November 2010 for $4.9 million, marking a nifty $1.3 million return in what was effectively a private sale played out in public.
  • Martin Kippenberger’s Ohne Titel (Meine Lügen sind ehrliche) (1992) sold to the bidder—the only bid on the lot, indicating that it was the guarantor—on the phone with global chairman Cheyenne Westphal for a £3.2 million ($4.2 million) hammer price. With fees, the price was £3.8 million ($5 million). The work last sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2014 for £2.3 million ($3 million).

Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (Meine Lügen sind ehrliche), 1992. Courtesy of Phillips.

As with the evening sales at Christie’s on Wednesday night and Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, many works sold right at or even below their low estimates, indicting a market that’s more subdued than in years past. Some have speculated that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has contributed to the lack of bidding in London. But regardless of the cause, fatigue was at play at Berkeley Square, as a dearth of bidding caused works by one-time market stalwarts such as Damien Hirst and George Condo to go unsold and two of the night’s top lots to go to their guarantors, with zero interest in the sale room and on the phones.

And yet, there were some bright spots, especially for the women artists highlighted in the brisk 28-lot sale. Right off the bat, works by Tschabalala Self and Rose Wylie both saw bidding go far beyond their high estimates to set new records for the artists: Self’s Lilith (2015) sold for £125,000 ($163,900), and Wylie’s Queen of Sheba with Gold Lump (2012) sold for £175,000 ($229,400). Later in the sale, Cecily Brown continued her recent hot streak when bidding on Armed and Fearless (2014) blew past the £800,000 ($1 million) high estimate, with Manley, Los Angeles–based specialist Rebekah Bowling, and London-based specialist Kate Bryan all competing for the large abstract painting. It went down to a joust between Manley and Bowling, who took it with a £1.4 million ($1.9 million) hammer, or £1.7 million ($2.3 million) with fees.

Another highlight was the evening’s last lot, a Cory Arcangel work with a high estimate of £150,000 ($197,000), which ended up selling for a £240,000 ($315,500) hammer price, or £300,000 ($393,300) with fees, just missing the artist’s record, which was set in May 2018 when a work sold for $399,000 at Phillips New York.


Rose Wylie, Queen of Sheba with Gold Lump, 2012. Courtesy of Phillips.

Unlike at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where there was an almost complete lack of bidding by Asian specialists, several lots at Phillips on Thursday night had interest coming from the region that has become vitally important to the health of the global art market. Jonathan Crockett, who is the house’s head of 20th-century and contemporary art for Asia, secured a Jean-Michel Basquiat work from the artist’s estate, Untitled (Velveteen) (1984), for a £1.5 million ($2 million) hammer price, or £1.9 million ($2.5 million) with fees, after a long scrap with a bidder in the room and senior international specialist Peter Sumner. In addition, the auctioneer, Henry Highly, announced that an online bidder on Tomoo Gokita’s Sham Marriage (2013) was coming from Taiwan; that lot eventually sold to Kevie Yang, a senior specialist who works closely with Asian clients. Andreas Gursky’s May Day V (2006) was purchased for a £400,000 ($526,000) hammer, or £495,000 ($649,000) with fees, by a client on the phone with Kyoko Hattori, Phillips’s regional director for Japan.

But signs of participation from Asian collectors are not quite sufficient to jolt the market to life after a week where all three houses were down from the contemporary sales a year ago. It’s not yet time to pull the fire alarm and declare that we’re undergoing a full correction, but this could point to a more beleaguered market than in years past. Heading into the May sales in New York, the auction houses may have to temper their expectations.

Nate Freeman