During contemporary-auction week, observers tend to focus on Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the Coke and Pepsi of the business. Phillips de Pury & Company might seem like a distant third-place figure, but for many contemporary-art watchers, the Chelsea house is where the real action is—more Red Bull than RC Cola. “They’ve been very successful at homing in on this niche,” says New York dealer Sean Kelly. As that niche emerges as the preference of many young buyers, Phillips is becoming a real force, accelerating the market’s move toward Modernism and newer work—or, at the very least, surfing that wave expertly.
How? With its habit of mixing emerging artists with established ones, as well as a loose approach to auction categories—marketing paintings alongside vintage furniture, for example. “Being the underdog, they’re lighter on their feet,” Kelly says, “and they’re being very creative.” He marvels at the prices Phillips has achieved for recent work, like $1.02 million in May for a 2002 Richard Prince “nurse” painting. But what really floored him was the same week’s sale of a 1972 Joseph Beuys multiple for $33,600. “I always sit in their auction room and think, Jesus, I wish I could sell that for that price.”
Financially, Phillips is still small beer. Its last contemporary sale just topped $35 million, compared with the $170 million Christie’s extravaganza. But when it comes to reselling work of the past decade—especially the kind art adviser Kim Heirston calls “blue-chip emerging”—many say Phillips holds the lead. Compared with the Big Two, Heirston says, Phillips excels at “creating an inviting, accessible ambience,” from chairman Simon de Pury himself (“part auctioneer, part rock star”) to its splashy catalogues and its storefront Chelsea salesroom. In fact, Heirston notes, it may be easier to acquire some relatively new art from Phillips than from the artists’ galleries. This year’s main evening sale (on November 10; the others start November 7) offers work by Piotr Uklanski and Ugo Rondinone, whose dealers keep waiting lists of buyers.
And here’s an irony: This ultracontemporary focus was pioneered by Christie’s itself, which in the late nineties briefly created a department to market post-1970 work. Since then, gallerist Perry Rubinstein notes, “Phillips has effectively taken over that sector and focused it”—and soon the others may want to catch up. Indeed, in the past two years, Phillips has lost its decorative-arts head to Sotheby’s and its photography chief to Christie’s. If one of the big houses can hire away Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s head of contemporary art (and a Christie’s alumnus), it might get his specialty back, too.