Phillips de Pury Makes Its (Small) Mark

Courtesy Phillips de Pury and Company
Yayoi Kusama’s "Infinity Nets (T.W.A.)" (2000) sold to Paris collector Marc Simoncini for $842,500.

By Judd Tully

Published: November 12, 2009
NEW YORK—Phillips de Pury & Company staged a minor though lively sale in Chelsea on Thursday evening, wrapping up a massively successful week of contemporary art sales that signaled commerce is back after the yearlong drought brought on by the world financial crisis.

The boutique-sized firm sold 31 of the 40 lots offered for a total $7,099,250, within its pre-sale estimate of $5.7–8.1 million.

That translates to a buy-in rate of 22 percent by lot and 14 percent by value.

Unlike its uptown rivals, Phillips saw no lots make over a million dollars and only five exceed the $500,000 mark.

Still, the result was superior to a year ago, when the house managed to bring in $9.6 million, but with a nasty unsold rate of 46 percent by lot and 51 percent by value.

The top-lot honor was shared by Yayoi Kusama’s densely abstract, 76 1/4 by 102 inch Infinity Nets (T.W.A.) from 2000, which sold to Paris collector Marc Simoncini for $842,500.

The Kusama was backed by a financial guarantee, though the catalogue didn’t specify whether it was guaranteed by Phillips, a third party, or some combination of the two.

Its price tied that of Andy Warhol’s 1964 single Brillo Soap Pad Box sculpture in silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood, which sold to a telephone bidder.

The work surpassed the previous record for a single Brillo box, $710,400, earned at Christie’s New York in November 2006.

That, of course, is nothing compared to Warhol’s $43,762,500 taking at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening, for 200 One Dollar Bills.

And speaking of that whopping price, one New York–based trade source close to the Warhol market said the rarefied painting was bought on Wednesday evening by Greek shipping heir and world-class collector Philippe Niarchos, who is also believed to be the buyer behind the Warhol-record-setting $71.7 million sale of Green Car Crash at Christie’s New York in May 2007.

Back at Phillips’s mini-evening, Simoncini, the buyer of the Kusama (hoisting paddle #17), came back to nab Ed Ruscha’s small acrylic-on-canvas Mean as Hell from 2002 (est. $400–600,000), for $590,500.

Button-holed outside the salesroom minutes after his twin purchases, Simoncini said he was new to the auction action, having recently bought his first works: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Year of the Boar from 1983 for £950,000 ($1.58 million) hammer at Phillips de Pury’s October sale in London, and an On Kawara at Christie’s day sale yesterday. He said he was pleased with his purchases, then left with New York dealer José Martos.

While most of the low-key action was confined to anonymous telephone bidding, there were a few familiar faces among the buyers. Veteran Chelsea dealer Paul Cooper bought Dan Walsh’s Untitled (1991), a large-scale and decidedly minimal abstraction (est. $30–50,000) for $37,500, and uptown dealer Edward Tyler Nahem grabbed Hernan Bas’s lushly figurative canvas The Lonely Martian from 2006 (est. $80–120,000) for $98,500. Paris dealer Emmanuel Perrotin was the underbidder on the Bas.

Exiting the salesroom, Nahem noted, “They did well with what they had but the offerings were skimpy.”

One of the strongest showings was a rare-to-market untitled group of five black-and white-photographs depicting birds in flight in artist’s frames from the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) from 1994, which sold for $542,500 (est. $250–350,000).

A stunning installation by Olafur Eliasson, 1 m3 light (est. $300–500,000), comprised of halogen lights, steel stands, and a fog machine and included in his survey show at the Museum of Modern Art last year, sold to a telephone bidder for $362,500.

“It’s a distinctly better mood,” said Phillips auctioneer and chairman Simon de Pury shortly after the sale, “the market is very good — active and solid.”

Phillips closes out the season with a day sale on Friday; Christie’s and Sotheby’s already had theirs, delivering almost identical and bullish tallies of $43.8 million and $44 million, respectively.

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