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.
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 Accounting for the one lot withdrawn, a Mary Corse painting, the evening notched a sell-through rate of 95 percent by lot.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.