Last night’s 20th-century and contemporary evening sale at Phillips went pretty much as expected—which is to say it was the most successful sale in the auction house’s history. No need to check your screen or clean your glasses, nor is this déjà vu. The auction house, always third chair in the auction orchestra, surpassed expectations in 2021 and has taken that momentum into this year with a confidence reminiscent of the philosopher Michael Jagger. “You can’t always get what you want,” Jagger once said, “but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” Phillips got both, raking in $225m (with fees) against an estimate of $170m-$210m with a sale that featured 14 women artists out of 31, something the art world in general needs.
An elegant early Kusama Infinity Net paining, Untitled (Nets) (1959), once owned by the artist Günther Uecker, was one of the most sought after lots of the evening, garnering a hammer price of $8.8m ($10.5m with fees) against an estimate of $5m-$7m, enough for a new world auction record for the artist.
That was not the only record set during the 37-lot sale, however. Robin F. Williams’s 2017 canvas, Nude Waiting It Out, hammered at $260,000, comfortably over its $200,000 high estimate, for an artist record of $327,600 with fees. The uncompromising yet playful picture takes the worn-out tropes of male-produced nudes and mid-century advertisements for hair products and reorganises them into a modern, powerful narrative that highlights the sitter’s agency.
Of course, the headliner was a 16ft monumental work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The 1982 canvas, billed by the auction house as one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces, was consigned by the Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa. With a third-party guarantor in place, the painting was destined to sell for at least $70m.
Untitled comes from a small series created in Modena, Italy, according to the auction house, where Basquiat visited at the invitation of the dealer Emilio Mazzoli during two periods in the early 1980s. It was around this time that the artist moved from New York legend to art world powerhouse and the price and bidding for the work reflected that. Opening at $62m, the bids leapt to $75m in just a few seconds at which point most specialists on the phones took a moment to pause and consider how far they wanted to push the price. As is turned out, despite a three-minute period of hand-wringing and secretive whispers, $75m is where the hammer fell for a total of $85m with fees.
The bidding was most intense, however, for Alexander Calder’s exceptional 39=50. Part of the artist’s highly sought-after Snow Flurry series, the sculpture sparked a seven-minute bidding war that opened at $8.5m. Bids came in steady $100,000 increments and, after a slight stall, a new cohort of bidders jumped in, pushing the price up $13.3m ($15.6 with fees).
Though still a long way off the totals achieved at Sotheby’s and Christie’s this week, Phillips’s white glove result proves there is always a third way.