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Gently does it at Phillips evening sale

Unenthusiastic bidding was bolstered by heavy guarantees, but some works hit the mark

It was a mixed bag for Phillips’ contemporary evening sale last night (8 May). On the face of it, the results were solid—the auction hammer total of $39.3m fell just shy of the lower estimate of $40.1m (with premium that total rises to $46.6m), and the sale achieved a 92% sell-through rate. Of the 37 lots on the block, only three failed to sell. But more than half of them, 20 to be precise, were guaranteed either by the house or by a third party.

Apart from a few lots, there was little bidding in general, with cautious buyers often needing some encouragement from the auctioneer. Only four lots fetched a hammer price that was above the upper estimate.

There was, however, spirited bidding on Jean Dubuffet’s Barbe des rites (1959), which hammered at $2.6m ($3.1m with premium), above its upper estimate of $2.5m. There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in the artist’s work—Helly Nahmad dedicated his whole stand at last year’s Frieze Masters to him, and the New York dealers Aquavella have an exhibition of his work on until 10 June.

All three (guaranteed) works by Mark Bradford, the next artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, consigned by the same collector, were sold above their lower estimates. Bradford’s Mixed Signals (2009), the most “houseable” work of the three because of its size, according to Phillips’ head Ed Dolman, performed the best, hammering at $2.5m ($3m with premium) against an upper estimate of $1.5m.

Works by Maurizio Cattelan sold well throughout the evening. His quirky sculpture Mini-me (1999) saw lively bidding, and fetched a $620,000 hammer total ($749,000 with premium), just above the upper estimate of $600,000. Only a few hours earlier, Christie’s broke Cattelan’s auction record in its Bound to Fail sale (his sculpture of Hitler, Him (2001), sold for $17.2m with premium, against a $10m-$15m estimate).

The two biggest disappointments of the evening carried no guarantees: a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, Metallic Brushstroke Head (1994), which was bought-in at $1.7m (against a $2m-$3m estimate), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1981) was bought-in at $1.6m (against another $2m-$3m estimate).

“It’s a contracting market and gathering works has been more difficult than usual,” Dolman said after the sale, referring to the wider financial picture as well as the art market, “but there is still a great deal of money out there to be invested.”