Phillips’s Trim Summer London Sale Generates $21.3 Million, Less Than Half the 2019 Total, as the Art Market Enters a Phase of Caution

Short and sweet. Phillips raked in £17.5 million ($21.3 million) in about 70 minutes during its evening sale in London on June 30, a steady and efficient finale of a blockbuster season that began in New York in May. 

Though modest compared to the tallies of its bigger rivals, Sotheby’s ($181.8 million) and Christie’s ($248 million), Phillips’s result landed close to the high end of its presale estimate range of £13.6 million to £18.4 million. (Final prices include auction-house fees; estimates do not.)

The house focused on the middle market with no high-end trophy works to buoy the bottom line. (Francis Bacon’s portrait of artist Lucian Freud fetched $52.7 million at Sotheby’s the night before, almost a third of the total.) Two of the 33 lots on offer at Phillips failed to sell and another two paintings were withdrawn before the event, presumably due to a lack of interest. Ninety-four percent of the works had never appeared at auction before. 

Phillips didn’t have June sales in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. In 2019, a similar auction totaled £35.9 million—more than double today’s figure—according to a spokeswoman. At that time, nine works sold for more than £1 million. Today, just four lots surpassed that level and Phillips executives didn’t offer any in-house guarantees, which typically attract higher-value artworks.   

“We took a slightly more cautious approach and I think it was the right decision,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, president of the Americas and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips. “It’s a testament to our focused strategy that even when the markets are down we are selling 94 percent of the works.”

As in many recent auctions, paintings by young female and non-white artists resulted in the most spirited bidding wars. But some works by current market darlings didn’t fly as high as they likely would have just a few weeks ago, signaling a degree of sobriety in the face of stock market volatility and rising interest rates. Asia bid actively, snapping up several works. Online bidders from Lebanon and Canada also competed.

More expensive items by blue-chip male artists drew little or no competition. This was the case of Cy Twombly’s untitled 1962 painting that fetched £2.7 million ($3.3 million), falling short of its presale low estimate of £3 million ($3.7 million).

Antonia Showering, We Stray (2020). Courtesy of Phillips.

Third-party backers were the only bidders for Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror painting Ragazza in minigonna / Ragazza seduta per terra, which fetched £2 million ($2.4 million), and Nicolas de Staël’s seascape, Marine, that sold for £1.3 million ($1.6 million). Works by George Condo and Gunther Forg also sold on single bids. A Face painting by Mark Grotjahn was withdrawn.

The first nine lots of the sale were by female artists, a recent trend by the auction houses that seek to diversify their offerings. Antonia Showering, a 2018 graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, kicked off the evening with We Stray, an idyllic landscape of mountains, streams, and bathers, estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. Painted in 2020, it was first shown at White Cube—and quickly flipped. The final price was £239,400 ($291,700), an auction record for the artist, who was born in 1991. 

A signature floral tableaux by Flora Yukhnovich, whose market has been on fire for the past year, fetched £1.7 million ($3.3 million), almost seven times the low estimate of £250,000. The 2017 painting, Moi aussi je deborde, was the third most expensive lot of the evening. 

At least six bidders chased after Maria Berrio’s collage, The Riders II (2012), which sold for £809,000 ($985,738), four times the high estimate of £200,000. 

Flora Yukhnovich, Moi aussi je déborde (2017). Courtesy of Phillips.

Flora Yukhnovich, Moi aussi je déborde (2017). Courtesy of Phillips.

But not everything took off, and the buyers seemed discerning—or, at least, a bit fatigued. A landscape by Shara Hughes, whose colorful compositions have been selling like hot cakes in the past two years, hammered at £200,000 ($243,693), below the low estimate of £250,000. Only one bidder went for Amoako Boafo’s portrait Bailike, which hammered at £320,000 ($389,909), falling short of the £350,000 low estimate. Anna Weyant’s somewhat creepy painting of a naked child, Bath Time (2019), sold for £226,800 ($276,348), surpassing the high estimate but lacking the hysteria surrounding her paintings of seductive young women.

“This is still a lot of money for young artists,” Engelen said, adding that the more measured bidding was healthier. “It’s an environment where people are thinking when they spend money.”

The auction ended with the evening’s sole NFT, whose result was likely impacted by the crashing crypto currencies. Minted on April 27, 2022, La Voiture Noire by artist Asprey Bugatti had an unpublished estimate of £300,000 to £500,000. It attracted just one commissioned bid, hammering at £300,000 ($365,540).  

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