The London contemporary art evening sales ended not with a bang but with a whimper on Thursday, as Phillips completed a relatively fireworks-free auction that raised £35.9 million ($45.6million) with fees over the course of 36 lots. The hammer total was £29.66 million ($37.61 million), which was not enough to reach the low estimate of £31.1 million ($39.4 million). Four works failed to find buyers, for a sell-through rate of 89% by lot. The sale was outpaced by those at Christie’s on Tuesday and Sotheby’s on Wednesday, and was almost exactly on target with last year’s total of £34.4 million ($45.6 million).
While no new records were broken, the three lots that performed best against their mid-estimates were all by women artists. Tschabalala Self continued the hot streak that began at Christie’s on Tuesday, as another 2015 work with a high estimate of £60,000 ($75,435) ended up hammering at £190,000 ($241,002), or £237,500 ($301,252) with fees. Marlene Dumas’s Losing (Her Meaning) (1988) was estimated to sell for between £400,000 ($507,372) and £600,000 ($761,058), but ended up hammering for £1 million ($1.2 million), or £1.2 million ($1.5 million) with fees. Also outperforming expectations was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—her 2015 painting, Leave A Brick Under the Maple, was estimated to sell for between £250,000 (317,108) and £450,000 ($570,794), but ended up hammering at £650,000 ($824,480) to the buyer on the phone with Phillips client development manager Vera Antoshenkova. With fees, the price was £795,000 ($1 million).
But those three lots were exceptional, as the sale mostly consisted of lots selling to guarantors or barely hitting their low estimates. Even the market sensation KAWS could not elicit more than a single bid from the picky clients in the room, on the phones, and online.
There were a few works bought in after not receiving a single bid, including Richard Prince’s Mustang Painting (2014–16), which was consigned by the baseball star Alex Rodriguez in order to raise funds to start collecting with his fiancée, the musician and actor Jennifer Lopez. Phillips will have to offer the Prince privately, but it did secure a buyer for another Rodriguez consignment: Basquiat’s Pink Elephant with Fire Engine (1984) which hammered at £2.2 million ($2.7 million), or £2.655 million ($3.3 million) with fees.
This was the first time since 2016 that all three major auction houses had evening sales in June in London, an indication that there is an appetite for more buying even after a long spring season that kicked off with Art Basel in Hong Kong and spanned Frieze New York, the Venice Biennale, the May sales in New York, and Art Basel in Basel. But then again, no house performed in a way that made this season seem essential, as the totals hovered around the low estimates. Even with a full evening sale at Christie’s tacked on this year, the evening sale total across three houses was £150.1 million ($190.4 million), just a hair more than last year’s total of £144.6 million ($192.627 million), which only featured evening sales at Phillips and Sotheby’s.
It may be time to once again question whether these summer sales are needed in London—something to think about while everyone’s on vacation from the auction business.