Art Price Guides 2003
MALEVICH SALE SENDS PHILLIPS INTO HIGH-END MARKET
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.
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.
This much-discussed Malevich sold for more than $17 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
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
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 http://www.phillips-auctions.com/.
Image of Malevich painting courtesy of Phillips.
(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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