Amid a packed New York spring art market season, Phillips managed to bring in $69.5m in just under an hour and half during the auction house’s 20th century and contemporary art evening sale Wednesday (17 May), as dealers warn collectors are being more selective with the art they buy.
The most exciting lot of the auction was the very first: Noah Davis’s Untitled (2010) was the subject of a 12-minute bidding war that pushed the hammer price up to $780,000 ($990,600 with fees) against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 to become the late Los Angeles artist’s second-most valuable work to sell at auction. (Davis’s 2014 painting Congo #7 sold at Christie's New York in 2022 for $1.5m).
“This is crazy,” one attendee exclaimed after a telephone bidder crossed the $700,000 threshold, causing the salesroom to break out into applause.
Davis’s work is “hard to come by, and he’s a cultish figure”, says Alex Glauber, a New York-based art advisor. Davis died in 2015 at age 32 of a rare form of cancer. Glauber suggests Phillips's estimate was likely intentionally set low to allow it to “set the tone for the sale and create some momentum”. But after the Davis sale, the rest of the auction largely continued at a brisk clip, likely to allow attendees to make it on time to a Christie's auction that started two hours later.
“What we’ve seen across sales is a greater degree of selectivity,” Glauber said before the sale. Collectors aren’t “just getting swept up in a moment without first evaluating whether or not the object itself is of a quality or standard they would want to live with”, he added.
The evening sale at Phillips was anchored by Banksy’s large-scale painting Banksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search (2018), which hammered at $8.1m ($9.7m with fees). In response to a 2017 Basquiat show at the Barbican Centre in London, the pseudonymous British artist spray-painted a figure inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982) being frisked by two London police officers. This version on canvas was released by Banksy the following year and was estimated by Phillips to sell for between $8m and $12m.
Two early Yayoi Kusama soft sculptures, held for decades by the Dutch collectors Agnes and Frits Becht, who purchased them directly from the artist, sold for nearly $6m collectively. Red Stripes (1965) and Blue Spots (1965) fetched $2.2m and $2.6m ($2.7 and $3.2m with fees) respectively against $2.5m to $3.5m estimates. They were purchased by the same bidder, and Phillips global chairwoman Cheyenne Westphal said after the sale the auction house is “thrilled” the pieces will stay together.
Kusama’s early work is “extremely rare” at auction, Robert Manley, the deputy chairman of Phillips and its worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art, said before the sale. Kusama’s market is also strong at the moment, in part thanks to a global collaboration with Louis Vuitton and an ongoing show at David Zwirner in New York. Phillips set Kusama’s auction record last year, when her painting Untitled (Nets) (1959) sold for $10.5m with fees.
About 80% of the works on sale Wednesday night were coming at auction for the first time, according to Phillips. Before the sale, Glauber said it was impressive the auction house had been able to obtain such fresh work from collections for the sale.
“Sellers either have very high expectations and therefore are reluctant to take lower estimates, or have concerns about the state of the world and people’s appetites to spend large sums of money,” Glauber said.
Some of the sale’s other top lots included Tête de femme au chignon (1952) by Pablo Picasso, which reached $6m ($7.3m with fees), Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl in Mirror (1964), which sold for $4.5m ($5.5m with fees) and Untitled (Standard Lotus XVI Face 44.15) (2013) by Mark Grotjahn, which hammered at $3.5m ($4.3m with fees).
Anna Weyant’s Unconditional Love (2021) sold for $480,000 ($609,600 with fees) against a pre-scale estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. Figure (Cobalt) (2021) by Simone Leigh fetched $650,000 ($825,500 with fees), just short of the auction house's $700,000 to $1m estimate. María Berrío’s No One Can Hear You, Only the Wind (2012) hammered at $500,000 ($635,000 with fees), or half of its $1m low estimate (estimates do not take auction house fees into account). Several lots were withdrawn from the sale, including works by Robert Ryman and Lisa Yuskavage. Works by Joan Miró, Issy Wood, Robert Colescott and Ed Ruscha went unsold.
The evening sale brought in a total hammer price of $56.3m ($69.5 with fees), with 89% sold by lot and 95% sold by value. Including Phillips’s two day auctions, the firm brought in $108.3m (including fees), landing on the lower side of its $92.5m to $133m estimate for the sales.
“We were really delighted with this, because it shows the middle art market is really solid,” Phillips chief executive Stephen Brooks said after the sale.
Sales continue at Sotheby’s and Christie’s through Friday. Collectively, the three auction houses expect to bring in as much as $2.2bn in May, despite widespread the market may be cooling amid various fiscal headwinds including fears of a recession and a banking crisis, and the looming possibility the US could default on its national debt.