Phillips… the talent spotter



At a time when certain auction companies are declaring an increasing volume of private sales on the back of the growing quality and depth of their client files, others are exploiting the advantages of these files to enable young artists to test the auction market.

This is the case for Phillips (at the beginning of 2013, Simon de Pury quit the auction house Phillips de Pury & Company which he had run for twelve years, hence the new name “Phillips”), which on 11 April 2013 presented Under the influence in London with 180 lots. The principle of this type of sales is to offer a small number of major signatures in high demand, even if the works are relatively minor (Andy WARHOL, Wim DELVOYE, Banksy, Christo, Bridget Riley, etc.), alongside a portfolio of newish signatures. Under the influence is a recurring event in Phillips’ annual sales agenda and the firm is not afraid of offering works by artists in their forties or even thirties, some of whom have never sold via a public sale before.

Auction debuts and affordable works
To be selected by Phillips, young artists need to show a track record that includes prizes and significant exhibitions, as it is the case, for example, of Adel Abdessemed (born in 1971) who enjoyed a first major exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris after his nomination for the Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2006. It is also the case of Cyprien Gaillard (born in 1980), winner of the 2011 Marcel Duchamp Prize, and Spartacus Chetwind (born in 1973), who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2012.

Although the Phillips sale on 11 April 2013 was not Abdessemed’s first auction experience (22 works have already been put up for auction and his auction record stands at $289,500 for Mappemonde, olive, hammered on 22 September 2011 at Christie’s), Cyprien Gaillard and Spartacus Chetwind were trying their secondary market luck for the first time. Unfortunately no-one was enthusiastic enough to purchase Spartacus Chetwind’s papier mâché and latex sculpture. His Crocodile (2004) was bought in against an estimate of £10,000 – £15,000. The French artist Cyprien Gaillard received a warmer welcome with two honourable results: the first at £8,500 for a set of two photographs and the second at £7,000 for a set of two collages (Working in a State of Emergency (Hools) / Working in a State of Emergency (Pollockshaw) , $ 13,000, and New Picturesque (Angkor Series), $ 10,700). For young British artists (and young French artists for that matter) London is the first market to conquer, before possibly trying out Paris at a later stage.

Thus Under the influence promotes the cutting-edge of creation and refutes any preconceived ideas about very expensive Contemporary art. In fact, around fifty of the lots offered on 11 April carried price tags below £5,000. Among the many acquisition opportunities for small budgets there was Jonathan Yeo’s collage painting Leaf Study 32 (2008) that fetched £1,300 (less than $2,000) and an acrylic work by Alan Michael, Untitled / « Untitled » (2005) that was acquired for £1,600 excluding buyer’s premium (about $2,450, plus a buyer’s fee of 25%).

Strong demand for major signatures
It is not an easy task to make this type of sale a success. The unsold rate at the Phillips sale was nearly 40%. The normally highly-prized signatures were the first to falter either for not being sufficiently representative of the artist’s work or for simply being over-estimated considering the quality of the work. Among the unsold works were two works by the Indian artist Bharti Kher: a 2004 installation entitled Hungry Dogs Eat Dirty Pudding estimated £30,000 – £40,000, and The XIth Hour (2009) a work made out of bindis (25 copies) that was bought in against a pre-sale estimate of £3,000 – £5,000. In addition, a number of relatively unknown, unappealing and /or overestimated prints by artists such as Thomas Struth, Richard Prince, Desiree Dolron and Vanessa Beecroft suffered the same fate; the allure of the signature simply not being sufficient.

Not surprisingly, the best result of the sale was generated by Andy WARHOL, whose acrylic True Love (25cm x 20cm) – that graced the cover of the catalogue – fetched £135,000 (nearly $207,000). This was in fact the best-ever result for a work from this series created in 1984.