Phillips de Pury Auction Panics Art World

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, 1990 Photo: Image: Phillipsdepury.com

Gulp. At Phillips de Pury auction house last night, as the New York art-auction season drew to a close, there was a moment of pure, unmitigated, and industry-wide panic.

Phillips was the final big sale of a two-week season that has moved a staggering $1.4 billion in art. At auction after auction, sales records have been set, and the hundreds of people who packed Phillips's meatpacking-district showroom expected more of the same.

But then a Matthew Barney didn't sell. (Gasp!) A Richard Prince went cheap. (What?) When the most expensive piece of the sale, Charles Ray's convoluted carousel, got no bids, a tsunami of nervous chatter swept from the front to the back of the room. (Impossible!)

Auctioneer Simon de Pury powered on to other works, but it was so noisy in the room bidding couldn't continue. If an emblematic work by Charlie Ray — a past superstar of Whitney Biennials — couldn't climb, so the theory went, it looked like art's skyrocketing-price jig was really up. To make matters worse, the spurned artwork was on the catalogue cover, so hundreds of images of the unsold bright-red merry-go-round were flapping around the room.

But then suddenly De Pury ducked his head below the auction rostrum, like a magician looking for another dove to pull out from under his scarf, and popped back up to announce that "I have been asked to reopen Lot 22." He began the sale again and sold the Ray sculpture for $1.5 million, to palpable relief. "This is very nice," he announced.

The savior of the art market? Dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who bought the merry-go-round with a smile. Phillips ended up making sales worth $29.6 million, and 88 percent of its auction sold — a terrific result, except that the auction house is known for its 100 percent sales of contemporary art.

Alexandra Peers