Old is new again: Phillips expands focus to include Modern art

New department to hold its first sale during November New York auction season

Phillips auction house, known for specialising in emerging art, is extending itself backwards into the 20th century. A new department with a joint focus on contemporary and Modern art, will hold its first sale during November’s auction season in New York.

Unlike Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which combine Impressionism and Modernism into one department, Phillips has no plans to sell works dating from the 19th-century (it stopped holding such sales in 2003). “Impressionist works look slightly dated, whereas a Kandinsky or a Leger absolutely relate to what’s going on now,” says Edward Dolman, Phillips’ chief executive.

The new department reflects collecting trends, Dolman says. “For a long time now, collectors have been buying across the 20th century. I want to flesh out Phillip' presence in that market without losing our traditional focus on cutting-edge contemporary,” he says. “I want us to lead in contemporary—part of our team is dedicated to emerging art and will remain so,” he adds. This Thursday, 17 September the auction house is holding a mid-season sale of emerging art, called New Now.

An auction house veteran, Dolman started his career at Christie’s and became its chief executive and chairman before briefly leaving the auction business to lead the Qatar Museums Authority. He was hired by Phillips in July 2014 to revitalise the auction house after the departure of auctioneer Simon de Pury, its former chairman. (The company is owned by Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin, who run the Russia-based luxury retail company, the Mercury Group.)

A major part of Dolman’s strategy at Phillips has been recruitment. “An auction house is only as good as its specialists, so we’re investing in experts, absolutely,” he says.

So far, he has largely enlisted former colleagues. Hugues Joffre, who is now the chairman of Phillips UK and Europe and its worldwide head of 20th-century art, was most recently a senior international director for Christie’s. Jean-Paul Engelen, now the worldwide head of Phillips contemporary art department, spent 16 years at Christie’s where he became a senior specialist in post-war and contemporary art before leaving to join Dolman in Qatar as the director of public art programmes.

According to the industry newsletter the Baer Faxt, Phillips has also hired Robert Manley, who was most recently the deputy chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. A spokeswoman declined to comment. Phillips also recently recruited Arnold Lehman, the former director of the Brooklyn Museum, as a senior adviser.

“There’s a big prize out there,” Dolman says, referring to the influx of capital into the art market. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that if you can carve out even a small niche, you’ll have a big business.”