$44.8 m, going twice

Last Updated: Fri, May 11, 2012 19:31 hrs

Blockbuster art auctions in New York this week have raised the ceiling on art prices for contemporary art and pop art, even in a downturn.

A blonde bombshell and a twisted male figure — classic images by Roy Lichtenstein and Francis Bacon — tied for top price at Sotheby’s on May 9, bringing $44.8 million each.

“Great icons make great prices,” Tobias Meyer, director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide and the evening’s auctioneer, said after the sale. He added, “The market is more global than ever before,” pointing out that the five bidders for Lichtenstein’s Sleeping Girl, from 1964, came from China, North and South America and Europe. The price paid by the winner — an unidentified telephone bidder — was a record for the artist.

While record prices were set for other artists, too, including Cy Twombly, Glenn Ligon and Ai Weiwei, the sale did not eclipse rival auction house Christie’s May 8 blockbuster, which set a record for the highest total for a contemporary art sale, $388.5 million. Sotheby’s auction totalled $266.6 million. While the Christie’s auction was steeped in work by Abstract Expressionist painters like Mark Rothko, whose 1961 canvas Orange, Red, Yellow sold for nearly $87 million — a record for any contemporary artwork at auction — the Sotheby’s sale had several top examples of Pop Art.

Besides the Lichtenstein, there were also a number of works by Andy Warhol, including Double Elvis (Ferus Type), a 1963 image of the singer when he was 28, which was expected to bring $30-50 million. It sold to a New York dealer for $37 million, including Sotheby's commission.

Warhol’s Ten-Foot Flowers, executed in 1967-68, was painted on a nearly 100 sq ft canvas and made for a museum. It was estimated at $9-12 million and sold to a telephone buyer for $10.7 million with fees.

When a good Francis Bacon comes up for sale, collectors jump. Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, a 1976 canvas depicting a male figure thought to be the artist’s lover George Dyer, was the other top seller at $44.8 million, over its high estimate of $40 million. There were five tenacious bidders and it ended up selling to Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s executive vice president, who was bidding for a mystery client. (Moffett took the record-breaking winning bid of $119.9 million for Edvard Munch’s The Scream a week ago.)

A later and smaller Bacon, Study for a Portrait from 1978, was snapped up by Donald L Bryant, a New York collector. It had been estimated to bring $4-6 million, and Bryant paid $4.2 million with fees. “I was happy to get it at that price,” he said.

There appears to be an endless appetite for high-end abstract paintings. A classic 1970 blackboard painting by Twombly, Untitled (New York City), covered in rolling sweeps of white scrawl, was expected to reach $15-20 million. It sold to Stavaros Merjos, a Los Angeles collector, for $17.4 million with fees, just above its low estimate but nevertheless a record for the artist at auction.

Paintings by Gerhard Richter, 80, continue to bring top prices. One of his abstract compositions of fiery reds, from 1992, sold to a phone bidder for $16.8 million with fees, well above its high $10 million estimate.

Between his house arrest over the last year and his retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the fall, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei continues to fascinate. A version of his famed Sunflower Seeds, this one made of 1 tonne of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, brought $782,500. It had been estimated at $600,000-800,000. Last year Sotheby’s in London sold one of an edition of 10 works, each composed of 100,000 seeds, for $559,394, or about $5.60 a seed.

2012 ©The New York Times

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