NEW YORK — Big money continues to pour over postwar and contemporary art. At Sotheby’s Wednesday evening sale, 46 works of the 57 that were on offer sold for $266.6 million.
Gigantic prices were paid for paintings by the most famous artists of the second half of the 20th century. The three most expensive works were iconic pictures executed by artists long dead.
Roy Lichtenstein, one of the shining lights of New York Pop Art, painted “Sleeping Girl” in 1964. The picture was included in the artist’s show that year at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles where it was bought by a couple of renowned collectors, Philip and Beatrice Gersh. The portrait remained in their collection for nearly half a century and never hit the market until this week. Sotheby’s estimate was set at an extremely ambitious $30 million to $40 million, plus a sale charge of over 12 percent. “Sleeping Girl” managed to edge its way up to a world-record $44.88 million.
Moments later, it was Francis Bacon’s turn to cause a stir with a picture also set in the concrete of art history. The British artist painted “Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror” in 1976 and took it to Paris to be exhibited in a one-man show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in early 1977.
The huge composition (198 by 147 centimeters, or 78 by 58 inches), which served as the exhibition poster, was acquired there and then by a European collector who sold it this week.
Never before offered in the market, the Bacon had everything in its favor. The artist’s works are scarce, and its large size made this one rarer still. “Figure Reflected in a Mirror” was further enhanced by its past history. It carried the same estimate as Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl” and realized the same price, $44.88 million.
The third highest price on Wednesday evening was the most remarkable in its own way. “Double Elvis [Ferus Type],” a monumental image at over 207 centimeters high, in silk screen print and paint, was executed by Andy Warhol in 1963, just as Pop Art was taking off on a grand scale.
Warhol has been elevated to the status of a folk hero in the global news media over the past four decades, as has the subject of the picture, Elvis Presley, seen standing legs apart, revolver in hand. Warhol’s source for the image was a publicity still for a movie, “Flaming Star,” starring Presley as the gunslinger Pacer Burton.
But “Double Elvis [Ferus Type]” suffers from a weakness. The grayish hue lacks the punch given by color to the Warhol works that are most admired by his fans. The estimate, $30 million to $50 million, plus the sale charge, was a tall order. Somehow, the gray picture ascended to $37.04 million, which says a great deal about the keenness of contemporary art buyers for very large iconic works with famous names attached to them.
Two lots down, yet another gray image confirmed that the thirst of postwar and contemporary art buyers for very large works signed by artists who rose to world fame in the 1960s is unquenchable. “Untitled (New York City), 1970,” signed by Cy Twombly, could not be further removed from the Warhol.
The work is abstract, not figural. A dark gray panel is covered with regular lines of rhythmical white scribbling. Sotheby’s expected it to be knocked down between $15 million and $20 million. It fetched $17.44 million, setting one more world record.
Had Sotheby’s been lucky enough to garner as many imposing post-World War II works as Christie’s there is little doubt that the Wednesday session would have aroused the same enthusiasm. The enormous prices paid for the Lichtenstein, the Bacon, the Warhol and the Twombly demonstrate that buyers were as eager as ever.
But seen together, the 57 lots that came up at Sotheby’s made up a far less impressive sale. Several lots sold on just one bid and 11 of them fell unwanted in an atmosphere that was quite dull during the second half of the session.
Yet demand was strong enough throughout for works of lesser importance to do very well as long as they lent themselves to instant identification.
Lichtenstein’s “Sailboats III, 1974,” was brilliantly sold at $11.84 million, even though this later period of the artist is less sought after. On its appearance at Christie’s in May 1998, the price paid by the consignor was a more modest $1.37 million.
Jean Michel Basquiat’s “Ring,” done in the manner of a naughty schoolboy chalking cartoons on the blackboard in the master’s absence, shot up to $7.64 million. In June 1999, at Christie’s in Los Angeles, the Basquiat had cost the late collector Theodore J. Forstmann a mere $442,500.
Even if less successful than the Christie’s Tuesday session, Sotheby’s evening auction on Wednesday illustrates the spectacular appreciation of most of the artists who rose to fame in the second half of the 20th century. But it also indicates that those artists’ less recognizable works can perform unpredictably.
Robert Rauschenberg’s “Primo Calle/Roci Venezuela” is a 1985 composition executed in a manner that differs from the Pop artist’s earlier work. This week’s consignor paid $2.61 million when it came up at Sotheby’s in November 2007. On Wednesday, the Rauschenberg, which carried a $2 million to $3 million estimate plus the sale charge, interested no one.
Those who seek gilt-edged securities in postwar and contemporary art need to make sure they are in a position to identify the right targets.