Early-career women artists and British artists were the darlings of today's auction of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips in London, but they were never more than second on everyone’s mind. Hours before the sale, the auction house announced it would donate all its earnings from buyer’s premiums and vendor’s commissions to the Red Cross’s efforts in Ukraine.
“It’s important to recognise the unusual and frankly horrific scenes in Ukraine,” Stephen Brooks, the auction house’s chief executive, said in a post-sale press conference. “The Ukrainian Red Cross Society is doing incredible work to support and protect people in the region, and it is our hope that the buyer’s premium and vendor’s commission from tonight’s evening sale will help this extraordinary charity as they continue their lifesaving work,” he said in an earlier statement.
The donation, which totaled £5.8m, comes after the auction house, which is owned by the Russian company The Mercury Group, posted a Ukrainian flag to Instagram along with a statement from Brooks “unequivocally” condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The first few lots inspired rapid-fire bids from bidders in New York, the UK and Hong Kong, but also collectors competing from France, Germany and Samoa. The first lot, Lauren Quin’s churning Airsickness (2021, est £30,000-£50,000), the artist’s auction debut, doubled its high estimate in under a minute thanks to a gust of online bidding. At around the three-minute mark, the canvas was up to six times the high estimate. The picture eventually hammered for £350,000 (£441,000 with fees), going to an online bidder in Samoa.
The second lot, Doron Langberg’s 2017 canvas Amy in Her Studio (est £30,000-£50,000) inspired a similarly heated contest, with interested parties online parrying bids from the phones at every turn, until a collector on the phones in New York pick up the muted, solemn work for £130,000 (£163,000 with fees).
The swift pace continued throughout for the first nine lots, most of which were by artists working within the en vogue figurative trend that has dominated sales rooms in recent years and, at the moment, shows no sign of losing momentum. Cinga Samson’s haunting Ubuhle beenkanyezi VIII (2017, est £50,000-£70,000) hammered at £200,000 (£250,000 with fees), well above its high estimate.
The first of two works by Jadé Fadojutimi, My Blanket has a Possessive Nature (est £120,000-£180,000), proved the artist's work is still inspiring bidding battles. In under 20 seconds, nine rapid-succession bids pushed the boldly textured and coloured work past its high estimate. In just over three minutes and after a quick battle between a phone bidder in Germany and a buyer on the phones in London, the painting went to London for £420,000 (£529,200 with fees).
Though David Hockney’s Self-Portrait on the Terrace (est £4m-£6m) was ostensibly one of the highlights in the sale, the canvas sold for a middling price, selling for the low estimate on the nose (£4.8m with fees). The true star was, nothing too surprising here, Issy Wood, who achieved her world auction record with her 2019 oil on velvet work depicting an extreme closeup of a pair of black leather gloves, Chalet (est £100,000-£150,000). After brisk bidding from Barbados, London, Hong Kong and Paris, three phone buyers stayed the course, with the picture ultimately hammering for £350,000 (£441,000 with fees) to a phone buyer in London.
Chalet’s buyer had a good day. The enterprising collector bid on and won two more new-chip works during the sale: the colourful Crooked (2017) by the artist Shara Hughes for £500,000 (est £180,000-£250,000), and Cecily Brown’s frantic When Time Ran Out for £2.6m (£3.16m with fees, est £2m-£3m).
Altogether the sale made for a good showing, despite the temperature dropping considerably after the first ten lots; thereafter, many works only just reached their estimates thanks a handful of bids. The sale achieved a total of £30m, selling 95% by lot with four works withdrawn due, presumably, to less-than-stellar market interest.
At the post-sale press conference, Brooks was asked if Phillips had been monitoring buyers to make sure no Russian citizens who are subject to sanctions could bid on or buy a work. The house “doesn’t transact with any individuals who are subject to sanctions”, he said, noting that there are very extensive compliance processes the firm goes through for that very reason.
The sale was the last in London's string of major evening auctions this week. On Tuesday, Christie's brought in a total of £249m from a five-hour marathon sale that kicked off in Shanghai. On Wednesday, Sotheby's take totaled £221m from a pair of back-to-back auctions that clocked in at a comparatively reasonable three and a half hours.