Dueling Bonhams and Phillips Contemporary Art Auctions Show Mixed Results

Two sales of contemporary art yesterday afternoon showed third- and fourth-place auctioneers, Phillips and Bonhams, closer in competition than one might have previously imagined. Bonhams had the longer sale, but with more lower valued lots, and managed to come out at the high end of the £4.2-5.9 million pounds estimate, with a £6.3 million sale ($7.6 million), including the buyer’s premium, in which 63 or 88.7 percent of lots were sold. Phillips had a higher value sale, with estimates in the £13.3-19.2 million pound range, but it struggled to meet the low estimate with a £14.7 million ($17.9 million) total including the buyer’s premium.

The Bonhams sale was one of its strongest to date, and, like Sotheby’s recent sale, was heavy on German content. The top lot was Oval 1978 by in vogue Zero group artist Gunther Uecker, which sold within estimate for £557,000 ($677,000). This was closely followed by a 1987, four-foot upside-down portrait, Heise Ecke, which attracted competition from the Skarstedt Gallery of London and New York before selling to a phone bidder for a double estimate £497,000 ($604,000).

Yet another strong performance was Anselm Kiefer’s Soldat (1974), which sold for a double-estimate £209,000 ($254,000). This must have made the owner, who bought it in 2002 for £31,000, very happy indeed.

The other two strong suits of Bonhams’s sale were Op art and Gutai. Some of the Op art had come from the collection of Lee Turner in Kansas, led by a large diptych by resurgent Polish artist Wojciech Fangor which doubled estimates at a record £413,000 ($502,000).

Wojciech Fangor, <em>NJ15 </em>(Diptych) (1964).

Wojciech Fangor, NJ15 (Diptych) (1964). Courtesy Bonhams.

Similarly strong prices were realized for Op art works by Vasarely and Yaacov Agam from the same collection. A cool, wavy gouache of 1971 by Bridget Riley had British dealers Robin Katz and Offer Waterman in competition, before it fell to the former over estimate for £106,250 ($129,000).

Kazuo Shiraga, <em>Séi</em> (1991).

Kazuo Shiraga, Séi (1991). Courtesy Bonhams.

The Gutai market stuttered when a late, 1991, swirling abstract by the group’s market leader Kazuo Shiraga failed to sell with a £500,000 ($607,000) estimate. “The market is favouring the earlier work,” department head and auctioneer Ralph Taylor hypothesized. But a rare surviving 1951 work on newspaper by fellow Gutai artist Shozo Shimamoto sold far above the £80,000 estimate for £293,000 ($356,000).

By comparison, the Phillips sale felt flat. It got off to a reasonable start with a red Josef Albers that had been acquired in 2012 for £271,616, and sold now for £425,000 ($516,000). (Phillips had a financial interest and may have owned it.)

Phillips Chairman and CEO Ed Dolman said they had perhaps been a bit cautious on offering guarantees for higher level consignments this time. Nonetheless, guaranteed property, rarely selling above the low estimate, made up a significant proportion of the sale. Some sellers did transparently well out of it. The owner of Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled (Plan B) had bought it in Phillips New York for $602,500 in 2010, and was rewarded with a £2.9 million ($3.6 million) price.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, <em>Water Towers</em> (1965-1997). Courtesy Phillips.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers (1965-1997). Courtesy Phillips.

Unguaranteed was a sampling of works from the affable Belgian collector, Mark Vanmoerkerke, described as the ABC collection. In relation to pre-sale estimate, the evening best performer was likely a photographic work of 15 images of cooling towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher which doubled estimates to sell for £293,000 ($356,000). In relation to purchase price, the most impressive was possibly Barbara Kruger’s Our Time is Your Money (1985), which cost £107,000 at auction in 2008 and sold at Phillips for £269,000 ($327,000).

Perhaps the biggest loser of the night was Damien Hirst’s spin painting, Beautiful Intense Cathartic Painting, which had been a star in the famous Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby’s in 2008 where it hung behind the auctioneer’s head and sold for £668,450. Back on the block with a similar estimate of £350,000-450,000, it sold yesterday for £449,000 ($545,000).

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