NEW YORK• A week of London contemporary art auctions got off to a rocky start at Phillips on Monday, following the economic fallout from Britain's vote to exit the European Union.
The evening sale at the company's Mayfair headquarters tallied £11.9 million (S$21.4 million), including fees. While the result was within the estimated range, it represented a 35 per cent decline from a year ago. Plenty of seats were empty and 32 per cent of the lots failed to sell.
"It's tough," said Ms Eleanor Acquavella, a member of New York's Acquavella Galleries dynasty of art dealers. "There's a lot of uncertainty in the world. People don't know what to make of anything."
Global markets have buckled since the results of the referendum were announced last Friday, infecting every asset class and sending the pound plunging the most on record.
As if that was not enough of a distraction, Phillips' sale got underway shortly before the start of England's soccer match against Iceland during the 2016 Uefa European championship.
"It's been a very distracting week to say the least," said Mr Ed Dolman, chief executive officer at Phillips, adding that "clients are trying to get their heads around what Brexit means".
There were, however, bright spots: No lots were withdrawn prior to the auction and bidding was spirited on some lots.
The evening's top lot was Anselm Kiefer's 1.82 by 3.3m painting of a boat at sea. Three-way bidding started at £320,000.
The final price of £2.4 million was four times the work's high presale estimate. Prices include buyer's fees; estimates do not.
Referring to the decline of the pound against other major currencies, Mr Dolman said: "The uncertainty wasn't helpful, but the currency was helpful.
"We saw strong bidding from Asia and US. It was almost 10 per cent off for them tonight."
Michelangelo Pistoletto's Violet Dog, depicting a brown dog on a mirrored panel, sold for £905,000, more than 50 per cent above its high estimate. The seller purchased it in 2009 for £109,250.
Rudolf Stingel's untitled 2014 canvas evoking a Baroque tapestry with vine-like purple and silver swirls fetched £1.3 million, within the estimated range.
The anonymous seller was parting with the work less than two years after buying it from an exhibition at Massimo De Carlo gallery in Milan, according to the catalogue. It followed another Stingel, Untitled (Topolino) - a silver-surfaced, pierced Celotex panel - which sold for £905,000.
The auction included a painting by Adrian Ghenie, an artist du jour whose collectors include billionaire Francois Pinault.
The artist's untitled 2009 canvas - depicting a man with mouth agape, hand thrust forward and face mostly obscured by wild brush strokes - went for £425,000.
Ten Ghenie pieces are offered this week at auctions in London. A work by Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles-based artist, returned to the market on Monday after two years. The six-part acrylic and paper collage from 2007, The Father's NO, realised £425,000, within the estimate. The work, acquired at Phillips in May 2014 for US$509,000, went to a Russian- speaking client of Ms Svetlana Marich, the auction company's worldwide deputy chairman.
Under Mr Dolman, Phillips has been retooling the executive ranks and expanding its offerings.
"They are finding their way with a mix of modern and contemporary material," said Ms Mary Hoeveler, a New York art adviser. "It's a balance that hasn't been reached yet."
Meanwhile, at Bonhams' Post- War And Contemporary Art auction today, a police Swat van covered in graffiti by English artist Banksy may fetch as much as US$440,000 (S$597,000).