Art Seen: Inside Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art

David Hockney’s “Nichols Canyon.”
David Hockney’s “Nichols Canyon.”
Image: Courtesy Phillips

Tired of looking at the same four walls? Seemingly, so were a lot of art collectors. They just spent $134.6 million—breaking company New York sales, almost world, records—at Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art auction.

You might have lost the opportunity to own the two priciest pieces: David Hockney’s “Nichols Canyon” ($41,067,500) or Clyfford Still’s “PH-407” ($18,442,500). But, you could have spent quality time with them, for free, at the Phillips Southampton preview.

In its new 8,000-square-foot outpost, a former Pottery Barn, Phillips sells to different homes. But their previews are available to collectors and lookie-loos alike. It’s another one of Chief Executive Officer Edward Dolman’s expansive moves, upping Phillips game by bringing in art world experts and rainmakers.

One such hire was Jamie Niven, as Senior Advisor to Dolman. “It’s been a big year for Phillips, very exciting for everyone,” said Niven, David Niven’s son and a 52-year Southampton homeowner. Niven joined us gazing at the Still with Robert Manley, Co-Head (with Jean-Paul Engelen) of 20th Century & Contemporary Art Worldwide. Niven knew the owner of that, and the Joan Mitchell ($11,297,500) painting, from lunches and dinners at the collector’s house.

“He loved the paintings,” Niven mused. “I’m not quite sure why he decided to sell them. But there’s a whole lot of world out there. He probably wants to buy new paintings.” There is certainly significant churn in the auction world lately, as buyers take their profits to look for new art investments.

Niven, who started at Lehman Brothers, attributes this “frothy” market to zero interest rates and enormous amounts of money.

“The world today is buying collectibles,” he said. “Not just paintings, but property, apartments, houses, cars, jewelry and watches—big time, pun intended! With success, people are coming to grips with owning beautiful paintings again.”

The Clyfford Still, which fetched the second highest price, was a true rarity. And we loved the Hamptons tale Manley told us to illustrate why: Still was uncompromising. As the art business heated up in the ’50s, he became fed up with its commercialism. He took his work off the market, rarely showing, selling or lending. His dream to have his oeuvre displayed as a whole was realized, post mortem, in the Denver Clyfford Still museum.

On the East End, Still had loaned a painting to his friend, the collector and artist Alfonso Ossorio, who ended up selling his legendary Georgica Pond home, “The Creeks,” to Ronald Perelman. “Still had a way of falling out with people for the smallest of reasons,” said Manley, “or at least to our minds. In his mind, they were huge offenses.” When he found out Ossorio was going to loan his painting for an exhibit, Still was incensed. He stormed up to the mansion with a knife. Was Ossorio there? If so, he was hiding. Still cut the painting from its frame, rolled it up and left, with, he said, “its heart.”

Still released a few paintings into the market only when he needed funds. Such was the case in the ’60s when he sold a group of paintings to Marlborough, that included “PH-407,” one of a handful available for private sale from Still’s peak period.

With this kind of inventory, despite challenges to the market, the Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary sale brought in 25% more than last year. Five artists broke their own records. The Design Sale, two days later, doubled expectations. Niven attributes these benchmarks to the experts Dolman has been pulling in and the company’s laser focus on contemporary art, design, watches, jewelry, photographs and prints. “They have been able to bring in the best people in the field, who have relations with collectors who trust them,” says Niven. “These enormous sales are the result.”

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