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CEO Dolman gives muscle to Phillips in art auction world

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Formerly the chief executive officer of Christie's, Mr Dolman says that he feels fortunate to be able to focus mainly on building strong middle-market sales at Phillips.

New York

DON'T feel sorry for Edward Dolman.

Yes, he's the chief executive of Phillips auction house, which is often mentioned as an afterthought in light of the heavyweights Christie's and Sotheby's; it rarely achieves the jaw-dropping prices that make headlines.

But Mr Dolman, 58, doesn't have anything to prove, partly because he has already led one of the two big houses: He was chief executive of Christie's for 11 years, until 2010.

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And, at a time when the competition for high-value, high-profile business has become increasingly cut-throat - with auction houses guaranteeing sellers high minimum prices to win top commissions - Mr Dolman said that he felt fortunate to be able to focus mainly on building strong middle-market sales.

"I feel blessed to have been released from the pressure of these high-profile sales at auction that are so full of risk and so damaging to the shareholder value if they go wrong," Mr Dolman, who is British, said in a recent interview in his Park Avenue office. "I'm very pleased with the progress."

Indeed, after four years with Mr Dolman at the helm, Phillips' total auction and private sales are on track to reach US$1 billion this year, a target that he set when he started. Phillips' watch business has managed to capture 45 per cent of the market since it was established less than three years ago. And Phillips recently opened an office in Hong Kong, responding to the growth of collecting in Asia.

Given Phillips' lower prices, it is unclear whether Mr Dolman will be able to continue to afford and retain high-end talent without gaining more of the big-ticket contemporary art market. His peers in the field attribute much of his recent success to the executives whom he has attracted, who include Christie's alumni such as Jean-Paul Engelen and Robert Manley, and former Sotheby's experts Cheyenne Westphal, Scott Nussbaum and Jonathan Crockett.

"His credibility was a game changer," said Brett Gorvy, a dealer and former Christie's executive. "It gave him the platform to be able to get the people who now work for Phillips. Without his presence there, they wouldn't have the team they have - they came basically for Ed."

It was Ms Westphal who shepherded the sale of Peter Doig's painting Rosedale, which achieved the artist's highest price at auction, US$28.8 million, in May 2017. She also handled Doig's Red House, which sold for slightly more than US$21 million last November. "She was able to use her authority and credibility in the market to bring some of the biggest clients in to believe in her vision," Mr Dolman said, "to believe in those works of art."

Having come to Phillips from Sotheby's last year - and been named chairwoman - Ms Westphal said that Mr Dolman was the "deciding factor" in her career move, and that he had led Phillips on a rapid upward climb. "When I was at Sotheby's, we did not take Phillips seriously," she said. "But that is changing.

"We've brought the quality of the auctions up season by season," she added, mentioning, for example, the Basquiat Foundation's decision to sell Flexible, a 1984 painting on wood, with Phillips last May. (It went for US$45 million.) "We're building our reputation very quickly, and it feels like we are genuinely a viable third option for a lot of people."

Rather than try to go after the biggest trophy works - where supply is thin - Phillips has instead focused on lots priced from US$5 million to US$10 million, and puts muscle behind even lower-end pieces that might otherwise end up in a day sale at one of the two big houses. "We can give much them a much higher profile than anybody else," Mr Dolman said.

In the London day sales this month, Phillips earned a total of US$15 million, compared with Sotheby's US$18 million and Christie's US$27 million.

"If you'd have told me we'd be as close to them in day sales - it's mind-boggling," Mr Dolman said, adding that the day-sale material is the great "sweet spot of the market" because the margins are still reasonable and there is a big depth in collecting, meaning ample buyers.

He said that he took pride in the fact that Phillips was now "involved in many more conversations about works of art for sale".

"We want to compete and we want to do good deals; we want to do better deals if we can than Christie's or Sotheby's," he said. "We are definitely engaging in the conversation."

He mentioned as an example Phillips' US$57.8 million sale of Picasso's La Dormeuse last March. "But we are not going to do crazy. Sometimes the risk in these high-profile sales is absurd - beyond absurd," he added. "No rational person would want to do it - it's mad." NYTIMES