Phillips’s live-streamed evening sale of 20th century and contemporary art in London tonight brought in a hammer total of £20.1 million, or £24.8 million with premium ($34.2 million), exceeding the auction’s £16.7 million–£23.5 million. Of the 33 lots on offer (a couple works, including the sale’s cover lot by Tamara de Lempicka, were withdrawn), 30 works sold, and 5 were guaranteed at a collected low estimate of £4 million ($5.5 million).
This year’s result is up by 17 percent from the total achieved during last year’s equivalent sale in February 2020, which brought in £21.4 million ($29.5 million) across 40 lots. That was a significantly lower total than the one achieved at March 2019’s sale, however, which, generating £37 million ($51 million) across 29 lots sold.
With the vaccine rollout underway in the U.S. and U.K., there is an air of optimism about businesses opening back up. In a post-sale press conference, Phillips CEO Ed Dolman remained hopeful for a return to in-person auctions that may reprise some of the drama lacking in live-streamed versions. “It’s a very different business when you’re sitting in a TV studio with bids being relayed in to the auctioneer,” said Dolman. “Frankly, I think we’re all longing for that moment when our clients can return to our auction rooms and bid in person.”
As is typical of Phillips evening sales, tonight’s London auction offered a medley of trendy new talents alongside Western postwar artists. The prices here were generally lower than ones usually seen in this series. Though the sale broke only one record, for Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, works by artists like Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lina Iris Viktor also attracted significant attention among bidders.
Among the top lots was Jean Dubuffet’s La féconde journée (1976), a large-scale red- and blue-toned canvas with scrawled figures that was exhibited in the artist’s 2001 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It hammered at £3.6 million ($6 million with premium), against an estimate of £1.5 million–£2 million ($2 million–$2.8 million), going to a bidder on the phone with London’s Hugues Joffre, senior adviser to Phillips CEO. Another top lot was Alberto Giacometti’s small-scale bronze sculpture of a female figure titled Nu debout II (1953), which was being sold from a Japanese private collection and went for £1.5 million ($2 million), against an estimate of £800,000 ($1.1 million).
Jean Dubuffet, La féconde journée,1976.
Elsewhere, works by American postwar artists resurfacing on the market saw solid results. Frank Stella’s Scramble: Ascending Spectrum/ascending Green Values (1977), a rainbow-palette painting composed of concentric squares, sold for £2.4 million ($3.2 million with premium). The result marks a 66 percent uptick from price from 2006, when the seller bought it for $1.9 million from the collection of Belgian art patrons Roger and Josette Vanthournout at Sotheby’s. Ed Ruscha’s grey-toned text painting Oxides (1971) sold for £600,000 ($826,000), double its pre-sale low estimate of £300,000 ($413,o00). In May 2013, the seller purchased it at Sotheby’s New York from the Bank of America art collection for $251,000. The Phillips sale marks an increase in price of 229 percent over the 8-year holding period.
Jordan Casteel’s 2015 portrait of a shirtless man gazing at the viewer attracted bidders from New York and London. Despite some early attention, it sold for £185,000 with premium ($255,100) against an estimate of £150,000 ($206,900). Even after an acclaimed Casteel survey at the New Museum in New York last year, the work failed to best her current record of $668,500, paid for an intimate portrait of the artist’s mother in February 2020 at Christie’s. The 27-year-old artist Joy Labinjo’s untitled painting of a white-coated woman with a child made in 2018 opened the sale with a strong start, going to a Miami-based online bidder for a hammer price of £55,000 ($75,900), twice the estimate of £20,000 ($28,000).
In her auction debut, Viktor’s work Constellations III (2016), a black and gold picture, hammered at £155,000 ($213,000). The piece is from the same series that brought her significant attention when dealer Mariane Ibrahim featured her work in the March 2018 Armory Show. The present work sold for five times the estimate of £30,000 ($41,000). Ojih Odutola’s charcoal and pastel drawing of a reclining figure LTS IV (2014) went for £300,000 ($413,000), three times the low estimate. Adeniyi-Jones’s black and purple picture of two entangled figures titled Love Ritual (2019) set a new record price of £151,200 ($208,550), four times the estimate of £30,000 ($41,000). The previous record for the artist, whose work is known for its West African influences, was set last year at $163,800.
A few works by mid-career artists coming back to the open market failed to impress. Paula Rego, whose work will be the subject of a Tate Britain retrospective in July, was represented by The Aunt (Nada), 2006, a macabre painting of a seated woman inspired by a novel set during the Spanish Civil War. It was bought in at an estimate of £800,000 ($1.1 million). The expectation was perhaps too high, given that the seller purchased the work more than a decade ago for $341,800, at Sotheby’s London in 2010.
Likewise, John Currin’s Girl in Bed (1993), a softly hued image of an anxious-looking blonde-haired girl lying awake in bed failed to sell at an an even-lower value of £450,000 ($620,000). The seller purchased it for $993,800 at Christie’s in May 2013.