Two years ago at the height of the art-buying boom, Damien Hirst said he sold a diamond-covered skull, "For the Love of God," for $100 million. Later that year, Polish artist Peter Fuss made his own version with imitation gems, "For the Laugh of God," now estimated to sell for at least £6,000, or $9,860.
Doubling Down on the Art Market
Phillips plans an aggressive round of auctions, despite soft sales of contemporary workBy KELLY CROW
As the world’s chief auction houses scale back in a grim art market, one auctioneer is taking the opposite tack.
Phillips de Pury & Co. is adding 18 new sales of contemporary art to its calendar over the next year and a half. At a time when Christie's has trimmed sales and Sotheby's has shrunk some once-hefty catalogs nearly to the size of CD cases, Phillips, the third-largest auction house for contemporary art, is enlarging its catalogs and tripling their print runs. Prices for contemporary art have plunged as collectors turned to tried-and-true Old Master paintings and Asian vases, but Phillips is placing some of its biggest bets yet on the volatile category. On Sept. 26, it will hold a London auction called "Now," featuring many artists who have never sold at auction before.
The plan is being steered by Bernd Runge, the auction house's new chief executive. A former Conde Nast executive, Mr. Runge was tapped early this year by Phillips's new owner, Mercury Group, a Russian retailing giant that acquired a majority stake in the privately held auction house last October. The new series of art auctions will roll out roughly once a month between London and New York, packaged with themes like "Sex," "Film" and "Black/White."
Mr. Runge, in his first interview since taking the post, said the monthly auctions will target local audiences in New York and London who haven't bought art before. He said that he is handling the logistics of the sales, along with the company's other business affairs, but said that the art will be chosen by the company's art specialist and its chairman, Simon de Pury.
"I'm almost an art virgin," Mr. Runge said. He said he is trying to catch up by attending art fairs and biennials.
Critics say that moving more untested artworks into the marketplace now could backfire if collectors hold on to their wallets, potentially rattling confidence in the overall art market. Others say the novelty of the plan—a disc jockey will play during a music-themed sale in October—could also inject life into a scene that's weary of feeling weary.
The art market has taken a battering this year, struggling even as other financial markets have taken small steps toward recovery. In the first half of 2009, Sotheby's sales were down 87% and Christie's sales were down 49% from the same period a year ago. Prices for new art have stopped plummeting, but the volume of contemporary art sales this summer was down 80% compared with last summer, according to ArtTactic, a London-based research firm that tracks global art sales.