$44.8 Million, Going Twice at Sotheby’s

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

It was the second of three consecutive evening contemporary art auctions in New York. And although the Sotheby’s sale was a more sober affair than the one at Christie’s on Tuesday, both showed that collectors from all over the world continue to be drawn to parking their cash in art they can enjoy, particularly when it is universally recognizable.
“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, beating last year’s record of $43.2 million set at Christie’s in November.
While record prices were set for other artists, too, including Cy Twombly, Glenn Ligon and Ai Weiwei, the sale did not eclipse Christie’s Tuesday blockbuster, which set a record for the highest total for a contemporary art sale, $388.5 million. Sotheby’s auction totaled $266.6 million, in the middle of its estimate of $215.6 million to $303.9 million. Of the 57 works on offer, 11 failed to sell.
While the Christie’s auction was steeped in work by Abstract Expressionist painters like 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 a different emphasis, with several top examples of Pop Art.
Besides the Lichtenstein, there were also a number of Warhols, including “Double Elvis (Ferus Type),” a 1963 image of the singer when he was 28, which was expected to bring $30 million to $50 million. It attracted two bidders, and sold to José Mugrabi, the New York dealer, for $33 million, or $37 million including Sotheby’s commission. (Final prices include the buyer’s commission to Sotheby’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000; 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Warhol’s “Ten-Foot Flowers,” executed in 1967-68, was painted on a canvas that measured nearly 100 square feet and made for a museum. It was estimated at $9 million to $12 million and sold to a telephone buyer for $9.5 million, or $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 wanting to bring the painting home and it ended up selling to Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern and contemporary art department, who was bidding for a mystery client. (Mr. Moffett took the record-breaking winning bid of $119.9 million for Munch’s “The Scream” just a week ago.)
A later and smaller Bacon, “Study for a Portrait” from 1978, was snapped up by Donald L. Bryant, the New York collector, who was sitting in the front row. It had been estimated to bring $4 million to $6 million, and Mr. Bryant paid $3.75 million, or $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 million to $20 million. It sold to Stavaros Merjos, a Los Angeles collector, for $15.5 million, or $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 $15 million, or $16.8 million with fees, well above its high $10 million estimate.
Between his virtual 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 one ton of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, brought $782,500. It had been expected to sell for $600,000 to $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.
After the sale, Peter Brant, the Connecticut newsprint magnate and collector, summed up the evening when he said, “Where the quality was good it was particularly strong.”