Phillips’s evening auction in New York notches $72.3m, buoyed by two fresh Basquiat paintings

Phillips sold $72.3m worth of art ($86.2m with fees) during the auction house’s evening sale of Modern and contemporary art in New York on Tuesday evening (14 May). The sale’s total fell short of the auction house’s $75.9m to $110.3m estimate. That range also didn’t include the estimates for two works that were withdrawn before the auction began: Milton Avery’s Sunset Sea, which had a $1m to $1.5m estimate, and Pablo Picasso’s Buste de femme au chapeau, which was the second-most valuable lot of the sale, with an estimate between $12m and $18m.

“We agreed together with the consignor that it was best to not offer it for sale,” Robert Manley, Phillips’s deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of modern and contemporary art, said of the withdrawn Picasso. “We’ve had interest in it ever since we announced, but we couldn’t quite nail down the interest that made us feel comfortable offering it [at auction]. I suspect we’ll sell it after the sale.”

Despite the last-minute withdrawals, the sale got off to a strong start with Noah Davis’s Untitled (Boy with Glasses) (2010), which sold for $220,000 ($279,400 with fees) against its $150,000 to $200,000 estimate, followed by Numbers (2018) by Derek Fordjour, which sold to an online bidder in Greece for $700,000 ($889,000 with fees). The third lot, Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s massive, colourful canvas Freedom don’t come for free (2021), also elicited strong bidding, ultimately hammering at its high estimate of $300,000. With fees, the price came to $381,000.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s Freedom don’t come for free (2021) Courtesy Phillips

One of the highlights of the sale was Vendetta (1979) by Barkley L. Hendricks, an example of one of his early portraits of a Black sitter wearing white against a white background. Vendetta sold for $2.6m ($3.2m with fees) against its estimate of $2.5m to $3.5m; it had a third-party guarantee, according to Phillips.

Basquiat blockbusters

Untitled (ELMAR) (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat Courtesy Phillips

The most valuable lots of the sale were two paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat that previously belonged to Francesco Pellizzi, the late Italian anthropologist. The eight-foot-wide painting Untitled (ELMAR), from Basquiat’s most sought-after year of 1982, sold for $40.2m ($46.4m with fees) to a phone bidder after three minutes of bidding. With a $40m to $60m estimate, it had the highest estimate of any single lot on offer during this season’s New York auctions. The following lot, Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer) (1981), sold for a hammer price equal to its low estimate of $6.5m; with fees, the price came to $7.8m. In the painting, Basquiat explored baseball references and Black identity and inclusion in American culture, according to Phillips.

Phillips will sell a third Basquiat painting from Pellizzi’s collection in Hong Kong on 31 May. Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari (1982) carries an estimate between $12m and $18m. Jean-Paul Engelen, the president of Phillips America, said before Tuesday’s sale that they decided to sell one of the canvases in Asia to “divvy up” the results for Pellizzi’s family, noting the Asian market is particularly enthusiastic about Basquiat.

Basquiat’s Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer) (1981) Courtesy Phillips

When Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa sold off an untitled 1982 painting by Basquiat at Phillips in 2022, it sold for $85m with fees to a bidder in Asia. (Maezawa also set the auction record for a work by Basquiat in 2017, when he bought an untitled 1982 canvas for $110.5m, including fees, at Sotheby’s.) Basquiat also holds the record for the most valuable western artist to sell at auction in Asia, after his Warrior (1982) sold for HK$280m (HK$323.6m/$41.7m with fees) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2021.

Pellizzi acquired the three paintings from Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s first art dealer. According to Engelen, he purchased Untitled (ELMAR) for $14,000, Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer) for $12,000 and Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari for $6,000, respectively.

Depth of demand

One of the sale’s most prolonged bidding wars erupted over Helen Frankenthaler’s Acres (1959), which ultimately surpassed its $2.5m high estimate to sell for $3m ($3.6m with fees). Two untitled “stack” sculptures by Donald Judd from 1978 and 1994 sold for $4.9m ($5.9m with fees) and $2.2m ($2.7m with fees), respectively. (All three lots were back by third-party guarantees.)

Acres (1959) by Helen Frankenthaler Courtesy Phillips

Frank Stella’s massive 1974 canvas Lettre sur les sourds et muets II was estimated to sell for between $5m to $7m. Works by the canonical abstract artist, who died earlier this month at age 87, were expected to sell for beyond their estimates this season, specialists across auction houses said quietly leading up to the spring sales, following a familiar trend in the art market colloquially known as the “death effect”. Audible gasps could be heard in the Phillips saleroom when Lettre sur les sourds et muets II failed to sell after bidding stalled out at $3.8m.

Four lots in all failed to sell. In addition to the Stella, the passed lots were Robert Mangold’s trio of semicircular paintings from 1968 (estimated at $600,000 to $900,000), a 1924 nude by Pierre Bonnard (estimated at $600,000 to $800,000) and The Lovers 2 (2015) by María Berrío (estimated at $250,000 to $350,000). However, after bidding on Berrío’s mixed-media canvas ended, Phillips “received multiple offers from interested parties and a deal was finalised with the seller shortly after the sale concluded”, according to a spokesperson for the auction house. The work ultimately fetched $216,535 ($274,999 with fees), the spokesperson said.

Despite some paintings selling below their estimates or failing to sell at all, Phillips’s staffers were bullish about the sale’s outcome and the overall state of the art business.

“I don’t think it’s a lacklustre market,” Manley said over the sound of champagne bottles popping immediately after the sale. He noted that many of the prices achieved Tuesday night for works by Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski represented some of the artist’s top auction results, even if the lots didn’t break records.

Manley added that he was especially happy with the strong results for works by younger artists, as the market for ultra-contemporary art appears to have cooled from its white-hot heyday in 2021.

“There’s been a sense that maybe the market was a little less frothy,” Manley said. “I was really happy that [works by] Derek Fordjour and Jadé Fadojutimi had really strong bids. But I’m also happy it didn’t go insane. I’m happy it wasn’t unsustainable.”

The Storm (2020) by Kent Monkman Courtesy Phillips

Fadojutimi’s The Pour (2022) sold for $850,000 ($1m with fees), more than double its low estimate of $400,000. Phillips notched a new auction record for Kent Monkman, the Canadian Cree artist, when his painting The Storm (2020) sold for $300,000 ($381,000 with fees).

Even with the hammer price totals falling just below Phillips’s estimate range, the sale’s $86.2m total with fees represents a 24% increase on the equivalent sale in May 2023, “so we’re really pleased about that”, said Amanda Lo Iacono, Phillip’s deputy chief executive. The work in this sale was particularly fresh, she added—more than 80% of the lots had never been to auction before.

“We’re expected to brag about our highest price because that’s what people expect,” Manley said. “But I’m just happy we had some of these amazing things that are really rare and hard to get.”

Immediately after the sale, many of those in Phillips’s Park Avenue saleroom dashed a few blocks to the southwest for Christie’s two-part sale of the de la Cruz collection and its 21st-century art auction—one that went ahead despite the auction house still grappling with the effects of a major cyberattack that took down its website. The week’s marquee sales are set to continue Wednesday night with Sotheby’s evening sale of Modern art, then wrap up Thursday night with Christie’s equivalent auction.