Stephen Brooks started his new position as Chief Executive Officer at Phillips auction house this month. He previously served as Chief Operating Officer at Christie’s auction house for more than a decade. Prior to joining the auction world, Brooks had a career in London’s financial markets as Chief Financial Officer at an investment bank and at a major asset management firm. Brooks spoke to Marion Maneker over the phone about the success of his predecessor Edward Dolman, as well as his hopes to continue the firm’s rapid growth, the need to attract new buyers to new markets, and the role financial guarantees (the minimum sum a consignor receives for selling property) are now playing in the industry.
Stephen, you’re taking over from Edward Dolman who has transformed Phillips over the last seven years as CEO. Dolman, who brought you into Christie’s 11 years ago, is becoming Chairman of Phillips’s holding company. He’s hardly exiting the scene. In fact, I’m told Phillips had its best first half of the year ever in 2021. How are you going to top all of this?
Before I started at Phillips, I recall seeing an employee survey of Ed as CEO—with a rather daunting 97% approval rating! So you are right—it’s a tough act to follow. There were many who thought the mission Ed embarked on was going to be a very difficult one, and to the credit of Ed and his team, it is. The business has been through such a significant transformation. It’s three times the size it was 5 years ago. They opened in Hong Kong, built a new headquarters in London—it’s a vastly changed organization.
When I was talking with the owners of Phillips and Ed—in the first conversation I had with them—I said I won’t come in just as a caretaker. I want to have a growth agenda. I asked them, ‘Are you committed to a further growth agenda?’ So, I think he’s done the really tough thing in building a team with real depth. You can build infrastructure; you can work on marketing plans; you can do the big scaling up thing. But you have to start with the best people.
The joy for me is that Phillips has got 6 collecting categories, not 70 collecting categories. The agenda is very focused. So you’re able to evaluate where is the growth potential. It’s a very clear that the prospect of double digit growth is possible from here. My job is to figure out how to do that.
It sounds like Phillips’s growing market share has changed the dynamic in your business. Rather than fighting over finite market share, the focus seems to be an expansion into new markets. The huge rise of Asia is one part of that. The other part of it is new buyers in all sorts of different categories.
It’s about new markets. But it’s also about new kinds of clients. Phillips is talking to a different audience, an audience of new collectors that can expand and is expanding in a way that the more traditional houses are not able to do.
I do think there are new products in terms of watches, sneakers, more design material, different artists, different types of artists. It’s always been an auction house that emphasized breaking and developing new artist’s markets. It’s the place people love to go for experimentation. That’s a fabulous brand identity. It feels very organic.
You rightly started this by referring to the first six months of the year. I have to say that was quite a surprise off the back of a pandemic. It is quite one thing to go back to sort of pre-pandemic levels, but it’s pretty impressive to get 15-20 percent higher than your highest sales ever. The warmth toward Phillips and the appetite for what is being offered is unbelievable. This kind of consumer-led desire to participate in auctions is very much there. Phillips has grown incredibly fast. It’s probably five hundred employees now where it was one hundred and fifty people and five years ago.
Going back to new clients and new players, it seems one of the very clever things that Ed did was create this Poly Auction alliance. It supercharged your Hong Kong sales. Is there more to be done there? Is there a way to integrate that further into the non-Hong Kong sales?
It’s a slight wait and see for me, to be honest. There’s a nice sale coming together for the fall season which looks like that cooperation with Poly Auction is again working very well. But it’s early days. It will be good to see how that particular sale works. It’s a stunning beginning. Once we get through the next sale, we’ll see whether that partnership has got broader resonance for the organization. Will it extend to consignments as well as buyers?
And what about hybrid sales?
I think it’s going to evolve from here. Hybrid sales are with us. But I think this year we’re in the middle. Why would you go back and retrench on some of these great developments? This is a much more participative, accessible form of engagement with the art market.
When you reintroduce live bidders, even if they are auction house representatives, will it stay in the TV studio? Will people come back? Will there be an advantage to be seen bidding?
My suspicion is that we will try and bring all of those component parts together in one experience, and we’ll get better and better as we go through it. It’s demanding for an auctioneer to juggle live and internet bidders. But our auctioneer is very good at this stuff. I think it will just get more and more engaging.
Phillips CEO Stephen Brooks and Chairman Cheyenne Westphal
Andrew Shaylor Photography
I think what’s interesting, if a part of all of this is that cultural property has become a store of value, it needs to be traded in more of a real time market. That would allow owners to mark to market more efficiently.
Why would you have a marketplace that seems to be closed most of the year? You want to expand it more consistently across the calendar to make it more accessible because that’s the whole business model. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re just intermediaries connecting buyers and sellers. The more often we do that, the more financially viable it is. But that requires infrastructure development. It requires capability to be on throughout the year. And there are logistical requirements that need to be addressed.
So the other big change has been the way guarantees have been financed on large collections. Your time at Christie’s coincided with the switch from direct guarantees to third-party guarantees. That has become the standard rather than the exception.
When I started at Christie’s, it was off the back of the 2008 financial crisis and credit lines were being pulled all over the place. It was the Lehman’s crashing with the whole credit crunch. The auction houses wanted to protect their balance sheet risk. They wanted to make sure that that risk was managed in a much more sophisticated way and that process began around that time.
Since then, financial engineering has become a key part of the art market. The role the auction houses play is using the skill set of being able to navigate one’s way through complex compilation of deals and risk management processes. That has become a central competence of the staff within these organizations.
I think Phillips is as well placed on deal construction as anybody. My own background, as you know, is very much in that space, and I was fortunate to be involved in some of the most complex and important transactions in the art market during my time at Christie’s, including the incredible Rockefeller collection that was sold in 2018.
Traditionally, Philips hasn’t been able to compete at that level. When you’re 150 employees and a private company, it’s very hard to set up the financing to do a Rockefeller collection. It’s a lot to swallow. By financial engineering, I think you mean creating a stack of risk so that the transaction can take place and the risk can be assigned to the various parties over time, rather than having to get all the moving parts together at once.
This is something that’s done in real estate, corporate takeovers, and pretty much all markets because you’re ultimately providing a service that the art market is in need of. When the value of these objects is so high that if you are selling the family silver, metaphorically, so many participants in the art market feel the need to get a guarantee or insure the outcome before they go into it. It is very much of the financial services mindset, but it’s actually providing a service to those who need it.
In 2009, you arrive at Christie’s. You came from an institutional background in the city. Those players are still there. But now there’s a wide variety of sources of capital, some institutional, some private, some semiprivate.
It would be lovely if there was some kind of standard way of doing this, but the reality is there aren’t standard pieces of art and there aren’t standard ways of tapping into capital. It’s everything you described configured in a bespoke way for the circumstances that you face.
It’s quite difficult to predict how this will evolve over time. But the financialization of the art markets is a path that I see becoming more and more sophisticated. Maybe we will see some kind of institutional solutions to this. People have talked about insurance companies playing the role. The issue becomes whether you can manage the risk. The goal is to get a standardized return over the whole thing. It is a nice notion. But, in practice, it becomes very difficult to do so.
Dealing with the complexity is a core skill set of the organization’s ability to provide the right kind of financial package for our clients and managing that service.
Is it safe to say that we to go back to where we started, that one of the key factors of Phillips being able to have its next leg of double-digit growth is providing this kind of sophistication and professional service on the third-party guarantees?
I wouldn’t distill it down as much as that. I think that there is definitely a next phase of Phillips, which is multifaceted. I would like to have much bigger evening sales. To be honest, the evening sales are pretty much the same size as they were four or five years ago. They’ve changed in quality and they’ve changed in product mix, but they need to grow further. And that requires several things—in my view, amplification of brand marketing capability. But yes, one’s ability to construct the right kind of financial constructs for clients is also central to that growth.
A Sign of the Times: Kahlil Robert Irving and Lyndon Barrois Jr. at 47 Canal
A study of time via collage and sculpture, “Dreamsickle” is Kahlil Robert Irving and Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s first joint exhibition since 2017. The artists attempt to convey how the friction and overlap between, say, the timelines of American history books and the imagined time of cinema might prove generative in some regard—whether for social equity…
A study of time via collage and sculpture, “Dreamsickle” is Kahlil Robert Irving and Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s first joint exhibition since 2017. The artists attempt to convey how the friction and overlap between, say, the timelines of American history books and the imagined time of cinema might prove generative in some regard—whether for social equity or personal dreams. The results are mixed. Many of the works (all 2021) capture the mundane experience of life on the internet (via memes, social media, headlines), but these feel dry, almost didactic, representing something that is rather self-evident—the internet is a cacophony. The more wistful works conjure a complex feeling of possibility tinged with unease that a title like “Dreamsickle” might have sought to capture.
Barrois’s four-piece sculpture Immortal Objects (I–IV) rests on the floor. Each component is a cast-iron sundial that shares a low, circular black platform with a single geometric acrylic solid. The piece seems to reference cosmic time—an immense span that makes a human life seem like a blink. But in the gallery, the sundials are defunct, stuck in a timeless limbo under the flat light of fluorescents. While their purpose and intended correspondence to celestial bodies might apply outdoors, here, the instruments are inert—open to new uses, or just deadened.
View of “Dreamsickle,” 2021, at 47 Canal, showing Kahlil Robert Irving’s Sky_High (Low & fractured SMAERD) and Means_Angles_Integers (The weight of media) #8, and Lyndon Barrois Jr.’s Immortal Objects (I-IV) and Perpetual Dilation, all 2021.
Photo Joerg Lohse/Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York
Irving’s vinyl-on-aluminum collage Means_Angles_Integers (The weight of media) #8 is organized like a timeline. A series of headlines and article clippings is turned vertically to look like a sequence of scenes in video editing software, perhaps nodding to the cinematic feel of the “scroll” or “feed” organization of most websites. Irving’s other collage, Means_Angles_Integers (The weight of media) #7, juxtaposes advertisements for credit score reports, an image of Prince, posts on Twitter, and memes from Facebook. The clippings overlap and obscure each other, competing for the viewer’s attention and conveying how these disparate types of content are given the same priority on the internet. Irving’s selections here are not random. Many of them pertain to race relations over the past two years: the first few paragraphs of a USA Today article note the ridiculousness of Trump’s declaring that he “popularized” Juneteenth, and a few sentences from a Washington Post article announce the launch, via presidential executive order, of an FBI program to monitor the police’s use of force. This all constitutes only a sliver of one’s hypothetical daily internet intake, yet it conveys the way political, humorous, and aesthetic content all compete for one’s attention there. Still, the collage reads as less critical than diagnostic, less a call to action than a mirroring of chaos.
Barrois’s installation Perpetual Dilation turns to cinematic time, considering how it relates to lived time, but is unclear in its intentions. Twelve film stills are arranged in the shape of a clock, each featuring a clock face from a different film. But the time depicted doesn’t necessarily align with its position on the clock face—the image at the midday position reads 12:00, and the next reads 1:00, but the one at 2:00 reads 9:25, the next, 9:40, and so on, without any discernible pattern. A little black hole also pierces each image—as is done with celluloid film, to create a cue mark signaling the end of a reel—suggesting a possible link between different cinematic moments. Still, it’s hard to tell which realities are being stitched together, because the chosen stills don’t provide a sense of the films’ content. The piece immediately calls to mind Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010)—which splices together twenty-four hours’ worth of movie scenes depicting clocks, arranged and synchronized to show the actual time of day—on a much smaller scale. Barrois’s interpretation feels rudderless, even in dialogue with the other studies in the room. Twilight Dialogue features the protagonist from Juzo Itami’s film A Taxing Woman (1987) below a blood moon, alongside clips of a sunset—twilight and nightfall encased in cinematic amber. Most broadly, all a viewer could conclude is that Barrois is studying how cinema distorts time.
Very little of the personal encroaches in these artists’ exploration (except one small picture of Irving in his collage Means_Angles_Integers [The weight of media] #7 ), which is surprising for a show framed by dreams. Perhaps these analytic tools are the beginning of a new body of work, like a set of sketches for a larger project or film. Notably absent is any time-based art, or any timepiece more fluid or mystical than a sundial or clock.
One of the more affecting works, and one that most related to the show’s title, gestured toward this last effect. In Irving’s Sky_High (Low & fractured SMAERD), 2021, a thin shelf supports cropped, overlapping images of the sky, arranged in a straight line. They feel like snapshots from the mind of someone daydreaming in an open field. A single patch of blue placed high on the opposite wall suggests an inaccessible escape à la Robert Gober’s Prison Window (1992), a sculpture installed above head height that provides the illusion of a blue sky behind a barred window. Irving’s work is also a little unsettling, squaring and quantifying the sky, but that sense of calculation—as if on the way to auctioning slices of heaven—is mostly overpowered by a sense of yearning. While many of these collages and juxtapositions were beautiful, I wanted more friction between them, more energy to charge these visions and dreams.
Surrealism Beyond Europe: 5 Essential Artists Getting Recognition at New Met Show
For years, the common misconception about Surrealism was that it was mainly a European movement, with René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and others as its leaders. Gradually, that notion is changing. Feminists have added to the Surrealist canon female artists like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Méret Oppenheim, and acclaimed surveys outside the U.S.…
For years, the common misconception about Surrealism was that it was mainly a European movement, with René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and others as its leaders. Gradually, that notion is changing. Feminists have added to the Surrealist canon female artists like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Méret Oppenheim, and acclaimed surveys outside the U.S. have brought increased attention to figures like Wifredo Lam, Hervé Télémaque, and Remedios Varo. As a new kind of surrealism takes root among today’s younger female painters, a new understanding of the movement is also blooming.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” reflects this momentum. Curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale with Lauren Rosati, Sean O’Hanlan, and Carine Harmand, the show, which heads to Tate Modern in London after its run in New York, aims to prove that Surrealism was hardly confined to Europe. If anything, this survey suggests that, once Surrealism got its start in Paris in the ’20s, the movement’s influence could not be contained. Surrealism’s tendrils wound their way from France to the Philippines and back again, and in the process caught the eye of curious artists who sought to reproduce—and subvert—European Surrealism’s Freud-inspired dreaminess.
“Surrealism Beyond Borders” does feature works by well-known artists—Dalí, Tanning, Lam, and more are well-represented. Yet the overwhelming majority of the 300-plus works on view are by artists who are hardly household names in the U.S. And indeed, many of these artists hail from far beyond Europe. Below is a look at how five lesser-known artists took Surrealism into their own hands and rendered it anew.
Sought-After Emerging Artists, Shredded Banksy Bring Pre-Pandemic Energy to London Auctions
In the months after lockdown ended, it appeared that the pandemic had brought an end to the days when auction salesrooms buzzed with bidding wars between international collectors. Based on two sales held in the London this week, it seems that that energy is once again returning. This week, as collectors descended on London for…
In the months after lockdown ended, it appeared that the pandemic had brought an end to the days when auction salesrooms buzzed with bidding wars between international collectors. Based on two sales held in the London this week, it seems that that energy is once again returning.
This week, as collectors descended on London for the first Frieze week since 2019, Christie’s and Sotheby’s held their modern and contemporary art evening sales in the British capital. Together, the two sales—which were led by Christie’s Europe president Jussi Pylkkänen and Sotheby’s European chairman Oliver Barker—generated a hammer total of $164 million (or $178 million with premium), landing above their combined estimate of £83.9 million ($123 million). The sales realized a solid 86 percent sell-through rate across 83 lots.
Sotheby’s sale brought in £65.9 million ($90.1 million), against an estimate of £46.8 million. The result was up 38 percent from the house’s equivalent contemporary art evening sale last October, which brought in $62.2 million.
Christie’s sale brought in a hammer total of £64.6 million ($88.4 million) with premium, well above the £45.7 million ($62.8 million) estimate. The result was up from the house’s equivalent London contemporary art session staged last October. That sale brought in £54.6 million ($74.9 million) with premium.
When Banksy’s infamous work Love Is in the Bin (2018) came up for auction at Sotheby’s, a buying frenzy reminiscent of ones seen in pre-Covid times ensued. The painting is a partially shredded image of a young girl gazing at a heart-shaped balloon. In 2018, the work came up for auction as Girl with Balloon (2006). After selling at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, Banksy’s painting famously began to destroy itself. This week, Love Is in the Bin hammered for a record-setting £16 million ($21.9 million) on Thursday, though not before 10 bidders battled it out for 10 minutes. The Banksy sold to a buyer registered in Asia on the phone with private sales director Nick Buckley Wood, who is based in Hong Kong.
Flora Yukhnovich’s I’ll Have What She’s Having (2020), an abstract painting that takes its cues from the Rococo movement, also saw a good deal of competition. It sold for £2.3 million ($3 million) to a phone bidder after another 10-minute long bidding spree. That price is nearly 40 times its £60,000 ($82,100) low estimate. The painting nearly tripled Yukhnovich’s previous record of $1.2 million, minted this past June when her canvas Pretty Little Thing (2019) sold for 20 times its estimate of $60,000 during a Phillips evening sale.
Flora Yukhnovich, I’ll Have What She’s Having, 2020.
Yukhnovich is among the most sought-after emerging artists at auction, along with Jadé Fadojutimi, whose exuberantly colored abstractions were recently acquired by the Tate museum network, making her one of the youngest artists in its collection. A new record came for Fadojutimi at a Sotheby’s day sale in London this week. Then, one day later, that record was re-set at an evening sale at Phillips.
In the Sotheby’s day sale, 40 bids drove the final price for her painting A Muddled Mind That’s Never Confined (2021) to £1 million ($1.4 million), more than 12 times its low estimate of £80,000. Fadojutimi donated the work to be auctioned, with proceeds going to the World Wildlife Fund. On Friday, Fadojutimi’s Myths of Pleasure (2017) surpassed the artist’s record at Phillips, selling for £1.2 million ($1.6 million), 15 times the estimate of £80,000. The Fadojutimi record came at a Phillips sale that also saw new benchmarks set for in-demand young artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Issy Wood, Sanya Kantarovsky, and Shara Hughes.
Cinga Samson, another artist whose prices are fast-rising, was represented at Sotheby’s by Love Song (2017), which depicts a Black man with a vacant stare. It sold for £321,300 ($439,000), 6 times its £50,000 low estimate. That result surpassed the young South African artist’s previous record of $378,000, set during a Phillips sale in July.
With a Guggenheim Museum show having just opened in New York, Etel Adnan, a Paris-based artist who is more than 60 years Samson’s senior, appears to be gaining recognition on the art market. An untitled work by Adnan sold at Sotheby’s for £352,800 ($482,000), more than 5 times its pre-sale low estimate of £60,000 and more than double the artist’s previous record of $171,000.
Over at Christie’s, the top-selling works were mainly by artists whose market success is already well-cemented. On Friday, the house held its marquee London sale during Frieze week in the afternoon in order to accommodate bidders in Asia. As houses like Christie’s move around the timing of their biggest auctions to meet the needs of Hong Kong, a market hub where buying power is bullish, the long-held term “evening sale” is coming to seem like a misnomer.
At Christie’s, David Hockney’s guaranteed Guest House Garden (2000), a painting of an expressively hued abode, was among the top lots. It made its auction debut after remaining in the same collection for 21 years. At more than 6 feet long, this large painting sold for £5.8 million ($7.9 million), hammering below its low estimate.
Hurvin Anderson, whose paintings reference his Caribbean roots, saw his blue-toned canvas Audition (1999) sell for £7.4 million ($10 million with premium), 7 times the low estimate and double the artist’s previous record of $3.5 million.
Works by women painters were in high demand. Cecily Brown’s abstract canvas There’ll be bluebirds (2019) sold for £3.5 ($4.8 million). The work was donated by the artist; the proceeds will go to Clientearth, an environmental law group. Hilary Pecis’s Kaba On A Chair (2019), a still life featuring a cat in a living room, sold for £225,000 ($307,600), more than 5 times the estimate of £40,000. On the heels her recent addition to the roster at Los Angeles’s David Kordansky gallery, her market is rising as collectors in Asia vie for her paintings.