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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Market Notes > Feature: Malevich Sale Sends Phillips into High-end Market

Art Price Guides 2003

  Kazimir Malevich's sublime Suprematist Composition brought a record $17.05 million at Phillips Auctioneers in New York on May 11 as Phillips sought to break into the high-end art market. The painting was the last to sell in a series of four Impressionist and Modern Art evening auctions by the major auction houses in which $361.81 million worth of art changed hands.
The traditional titans Christie's and Sotheby's did just fine. Christie's sold a Claude Monet Waterlillies painting from 1906 for $20.91 million and a 1932 Pablo Picasso oil of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, for $28.61 million. In two evenings, May 8 and 9, Christie's knocked down $177.51 million worth of art.

This Malevich sold for more than $17 million.

This much-discussed Malevich sold for more than $17 million.

Sotheby's weighed in with an evening auction of Impressionist and Modern Art that fetched $140.53 million, which a Monet view the Rouen Cathedral $24.21 million Henri Matisse bronze sculpture, Le Serpentine, fetched $14.0 million.
But it was Phillips that grabbed the headlines. The 204-year-old auction house has long had a name as a purveyor of modestly-priced Doultonware and lead soldiers. In 1999, it was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), which promptly set about trying to position the house to enter the high-end art market. For LVMH owner, Bernard Arnault, it's a natural fit. "The whole [LVMH] group is about luxury," he said.
How does a modest little auction house compete with high-profile competition? Money, of course. Phillips spent tens of millions of dollars to get artworks to sell, and millions more on marketing. The business model market, market, market is familiar to anyone who's been involved with an Internet start-up. At the end of the day, did the auction house which realized $43.95 million in sales against pre-auction estimates of around $80 million make money?
Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, called it "a reasonably profitable sale." He added what might have been a context: "We're in for the long term. Everything the LVMH group is doing is for the long term."
The Phillips auction was held in the cramped quarters of the American Craft Museum in Manhattan, started late, and offered something no other auction house has ever offered its guests: Sharon Stone. Stone is an actress and fund-raiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), and Phillips was donating three percent of the evening's take to the organization.
Auctions are typically pretty dry. But not with Stone, who prowled the aisles "cruising for bids", as she said. At one point, she knelt beside London art dealer Ezra Nahmad to try to rekindle his interest in a Picasso that he'd been bidding on. As auctioneer Dan Klein asked Nahmad for another bid, Stone said, "Shhh. Let him concentrate," as she was nearly cheek by jowl with the jet set international dealer. In the end, Nahmad could not be moved.
The Malevich was the main draw of the evening. Phillips had guaranteed the sellers Malevich's heirs an unspecified figure reported to be $15 million. Press reports have belittled the $17.05 million price as an indication that Phillips didn't do particularly well with the painting. But no Malevich had ever sold for more than $8 million, and shortly before the sale commenced, a dealer sniffed that without the circus-like atmosphere he could "certainly" sell it for $10 million. I didn't catch up with him after the sale.
By that time, Phillips was assessing its position. Chief Executive Christopher N. Thomson placed the sale as a 7.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. "Our primary objective is to achieve a significant position at the high end of the art market," he said.
Anyone who missed the auction can catch Stone accepting proceeds on behalf of AmFAR at

Image of Malevich painting courtesy of Phillips.



Kazimir Malevich
(Masters of Art)
by Charlotte Douglas, Kazimir Severinovich Malevich

(Great Modern Masters Series)
by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, Jose Maria Faerna

Kasimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry by John Milner

Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde
by John Bowlt

Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure
by Rainer Crone, David Moos

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