2018 wasn’t just a good year for Phillips, it was their best year to date.
The auction house announced that it closed the year with $916 million worth of art and collectibles sold, the highest in its 220-year history. According to an official statement, auction sales closed at $794.3 million, a 27 percent rise year to year, and private sales closed at $122.2 million, a 46 percent increase from last year. Modern and contemporary art sales also saw a dramatic jump with $592.9 million of sales, or a 40 percent rise year-to-year.
This comes 10 years after the Mercury Group acquired the historic but embattled auction house and five years since Ed Dolman, Christie’s former CEO, took the helm. In 2008, Mercury Group bought the auction house when it was named Phillips de Pury & Company. Since 1999, Phillips had been bought and sold multiple times, with Bernard Arnault of LVMH Moët Hennessy initially buying it then selling it to Bonhams after a series of disastrous sales who then in turn sold it to Simon de Pury and Daniella Luxembourg, before Russia’s Mercury Group snapped it up and changed its name back to Phillips.
In recent years, Phillips has carved out a great niche for itself by holding sales of cutting-edge contemporary art, photography and design, in addition to great emphasis on private treaty sales. The auction house has also been organizing exhibitions by big name contemporary artists like Mario Testino, Julian Schnabel, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz.
While rivals Sotheby’s and Christie’s are way ahead of the curve having exceeded $4 billion in sales last year, Phillips has certainly made serious gains in market share. According to artnet’s Price Database, Phillips public auction sales have more than doubled in the past five years. In 2013, their fine art sales contributed to 4.1 percent of the total sales generated by all three auction houses. Five years later, that figure is at seven percent, representing an increase of around $350 million.
“Our strategy of focusing exclusively on the 20th and 21st centuries, our continued expansion in Asia, and our move to increase our modern art offerings have all played a role,” Ed Dolman said in a statement.
In an interview with artnet News, Dolman shared his focus on less glamour and more profitability. “The middle market day sales that accompany the high-profile evening sales are extremely important to the revenue generation for the company,” he said, adding that the category grew by 50 percent in the past year.
Dolman also emphasised his focus on pursuing more high caliber modern works to further drive revenue, citing as examples Picasso’s La Dormeuse (1932), which sold in London for $57.9 million and Matisse’s bronze sculpture Nu Allonge 1 (Aurore) (1917), which sold for $20.5 million at the same sale.
The question remains whether Phillips will be able to replicate its success this year, which many forecast as a challenging one. In the face of a Chinese economic slowdown as well as Brexit, Dolman said: “I’m hoping 2019 will be a year where people continue to buy and sell art and that Phillips will continue to see growth.”