Phillips auction house ups its game with selections from Matisse and Picasso

Phillips auction house ups its game with selections from Matisse and Picasso

Wrestling market share from Sotheby’s and Christie’s must seem nigh on impossible to third-placed art auctioneer Phillips. For the last two years, and in spite of a number of high profile staff signings, their share has remained static at 5.6 percent.

The only answer is to keep upping their game; which is what they are doing. Indeed, as this year’s major auctions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art approach, it is becoming apparent that Phillips is assembling its most valuable sale in London yet.

The previous high for a single sale at Phillips in London was the £31.5 million achieved for contemporary art in October 2015, and with one week still to go before they close entries for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary, they are already looking at a much higher pre-sale estimate than that.

This is partly due to an increase in the modern art content of their sale. Whereas Phillips used to be focused on selling contemporary, cutting edge art, since 2016 they have broadened their scope with a combined 20th century and contemporary art sale category.

It took a while to take effect, but, last November in New York, led by the sale of drawings by Picasso and Matisse from the collection of Elvis Presley’s music publisher, Julian J. Aberbach, modern art accounted for 18 percent of the sale’s $114 million total. In London this March, that percentage could more than double.

A report by auction analysts Art Tactic calculates that Impressionist and Modern art (mainly at Sotheby’s and Christie’s) accounted for $2.4 billion (£1.73 billion) of global sales last year, an increase of 64.5 percent on the previous year. Now, Phillips is looking to cash in on that swing with another combination of works by Picasso and Matisse.

Possibly the find of the forthcoming sales is a 1907 bronze of a reclining nude, Nu Allongé (Aurore) by Matisse, the whereabouts of which has been unknown since it was last exhibited in 1915. Numbered three out of ten casts, it was one of the first from the edition to be cast from its plaster mould – a mark of prestige among collectors.

Others from the edition were cast until 1951 and are held in the collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris; the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Texas.

While all of these other casts have a shiny surface from years of protective waxing, number three’s more matte finish is much closer to its original state.

Henri Matisse, Nu allongé I

The last Matisse sculpture from this edition to come to auction was number eight, cast in 1930, which sold at Phillips in New York in 2001, for $9.6 million – currently the highest auction price for these particular bronzes. This is why the owners of number three chose to sell at Phillips rather than Sotheby’s or Christie’s, though its estimate, at £5-7 million, seems relatively conservative.

Nu Allongé 1 (Aurore) was made at the point when figurative art began embracing abstraction — a historic moment in the evolution of modern art.

Tracing the sources of Matisse’s inspiration, American scholar Charles Stuckey compares the piece to nothing less than Michelangelo’s Aurora, the reclining female sculpture executed in the 1520s for the Medici Chapel in Florence, to sit aside the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Turning the clock forward to 1907, he finds the temptation to compare the pose with the raised arm to one of the models in Picasso’s revolutionary Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of the same year is too difficult to resist.

Stuckey also draws a connection between the Matisse bronze and Phillips’ other star modern art offering — a large, languorous painting by Picasso of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, sleeping. It was painted in 1932, at a time when Picasso had recently returned to looking at Matisse’s sculptures.

Picasso’s admiration for which led to the series of paintings of Marie-Therese that will be shown at Tate Modern in March, as part of an exhibition devoted to 1932 — Picasso’s so-called “Annus Mirabilis”.

One of these paintings previously sold for over $100 million, but the Phillips example, perhaps because it is part drawing, part painting, is estimated at £12-16 million pounds.

Some have asserted that Phillips can only challenge the big auction houses by offering sellers financial guarantees to encourage a sale. But neither the Matisse nor the Picasso have been guaranteed.

Furthermore, the unaggressive estimates have been made to encourage bidding and fetch higher prices, thus placing Phillips firmly in the competition to sell prime examples of modern art.