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Phillips de Pury... on the Rumble

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2nd Oct 2008

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Phillips? Phillips!! - Soiree at The Box New York
Thursday, 18 October 2007

Attracting attention is an art, but turning attention into cash is what modern business is all about. With that in mind, Phillips de Pury seems to be right on the money. Its not just that they threw two consecutive bashes during the recent fall auctions in London (everybody does), or that they have a stunning new space in the same city that has been awaited for eons (everybody does), or that the contemporary art market remains white hot, bringing in record figures at almost every sale.

What matters is that Phillips de Pury has really found credibility as the "young" auction house - not just the "third" auction house. It is the place for the up and coming, the anointed future house, and where tomorrow's stars already feel like they own the place. A post-modernist sensibility pervades, but its a crap-shoot about who will eventually graduate to icon status. This is where tomorrow's money is being made.

On the eve of the Phillips de Pury Advisory Board meeting, the house teamed up with Quintessentially (the luxury lifestyle group) to bring New York's decadently swish Box cabaret to London for a night of performance. The Box resides at the intersection of fine dining, pseudoporn and theater, and was created by Simon Hammerstein, Richard Kimmel and Randy Weiner.

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Zeng Fangzhi, Mask Series no.9
Despite being closed down a few weeks ago in New York, they are now back up, and rumored to be testing the London waters. All the rage in New York, bringing them to London was a Phillips and Quintessentially coup - possibly the one American import the euro set could get excited about, even if half had already seen the bottle & boob acts.

Of course the Box was just a prelude to the real show: over the course of four auctions Phillips de Pury put over 370 pieces under the gavel and raised 42 million, not bad for contemporary art with a heavy Chinese and Russian influence.

The global nature of the sale, with bidders running up prices on hot Chinese artists like Zeng Fanzhi near Hirst-ian levels, signaled a moment of merger - where the older houses of Christie's and Sotheby's have long maintained an air of distinction in their categorizations, the sense over at Phillips is one of social globalization, where its all up for grabs and evaluated on equal merit -- whether a Kapoor, Zeng, or Bulatov, or a buyer in Sao Paolo, Hong Kong or Paris.

Anyone can do a party, and in the grand scheme of things they don't really matter. But in a way they do. Change, deeper than cosmetic, poses risk. Would any other established European auction house put a razor sharp 30-something American on the auction stand and conclude an auction by opening a wall to reveal a kickin' band? When a house has the balls to get the same people who were quietly bidding against each other to start dancing in the dark five minutes later, one gets the feeling that the center of gravity in the high brow art world may have shifted, if only just a little.

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Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, Chicago - photo: Wade Griffith
At the very least, Phillips de Pury is doing its part to inflate that lovely art bubble just a little more, but on a deeper level they have proven themselves to be the alternative house, unburdened by the old legacies associated with auction houses and a place where the younger crowd feels more comfortable. But where the money goes, so does the art, so the key question will be whether the chic younger set now courting Phillips de Pury stays loyal as they build or inherit their own fortunes. What is liked isn't always what is bought, especially in art.

Nevertheless, the salvos are clear, and Christie's and Sotheby's are not resting on their laurels. The recent acquisition of Haunch of Venison by Christie's has had everyone astir... maybe because the only thing hotter than a sexy auction house is a sexy gallery. Haunch could give Christie's the "hot" polish it needs without risking the whole show. Maybe Sotheby's need a little white cube, just to keep up.