Lichtenstein and Bacon Lead $266 M. Sale of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s

An iconic painting by Roy Lictenstein set a new worldwide auction record for the artist at Sotheby's early this evening, creating one of the few dramatic moments in what was, at times, a humdrum sale. The Lichtenstein, Sleeping Girl (1964), which sold for $44.9 million, tied for the auction’s top spot with a Francis Bacon painting of the artist’s lover George Dyer from 1976, created shortly before Dyer killed himself.

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Overall, the sale was hit or miss, coming in at $266.6 million with buyer’s premium, around the middle of a pre-sale estimate of $215.6 million to $303.9 million (which, it should be noted, does not include premium). Still, that amount is impressive in terms of the overall market, when one considers that the corresponding sale a year ago at Sotheby’s totaled just $120 million.

Out of a total of 57 lots on offer this evening, 11 went unsold, leading to a respectable but not spectacular sell-through rate of 81 percent by lot. A handful of new artist records were set, including ones for Mark Grotjahn (the underbidder on that lot was Larry Gagosian, who has shown Mr. Grotjahn’s work at his gallery), Iza Genzken, Mark Bradford and Cy Twombly, who died last year. Tonight, a 1970 blackboard painting of Twombly’s sold for $17.4 million, beating his previous auction record of $15.2 million, which was achieved almost exactly a year ago at Christie’s New York.

Double Elvis [Ferus Type], a silkscreen ink and spray paint piece “by Andy,” as auctioneer Tobias Meyer put it, from 1963, speedily sold for $37 million. The piece came from the collection of Fort Worth, Texas, collector Julian Ard (according to Art+Auction magazine), and was estimated to sell for $30 million to $50 million, making its hammer price fair, but not stellar.

“Well, it wasn’t that impressive anyway,” dealer Emilio Steinberger (whose gallery, Haunch of Venison, is owned by Christie’s) said after the sale. “Did you see it? It was really more like one-and-a-half Elvises.” (Believe it or not, this wasn’t completely a joke. According to one art advisor, the talk among collectors had it that the second Elvis wasn’t visible enough, making the work something less than a top example of a Warhol.)

“It was the biggest Warhol price we’ve seen in a while,” Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department Head Alex Rotter said at the press conference after the sale. “It’s not the world record, but I think that’s a very successful price. You always hope for more.”

The Lichtenstein painting that made the top price, Sleeping Girl, had an excellent provenance, coming from the collection of Los Angeles collector Beatrice Gersh, who died in October. Her family could be spotted in a skybox celebrating when it was hammered down.

But another Lichtenstein was among the top-10 lots, Sailboats III, from 1974, which sold for $11.8 million. It last came up for sale in 1998 at Christie’s New York and made $1.4 million.

There was a tense battle between the phones and dealer Dominique Lévy for the first of the night’s two abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter. It finally sold to an anonymous bidder on the phone for $17 million.

A bright red Lucio Fontana slashed canvas painting also inspired a flurry of bids, perhaps signifying an increased demand for the late Italian artist’s work in the wake of Gagosian’s recently opened large-scale Fontana exhibition.

There was a fair amount of bidding in the room in general. One art advisor, Manfredi della Gherarardesca, who is based in London, picked up both an Yves Klein gold monochrome for $1.5 million and a Damien Hirst butterfly painting for $1.7 million, the latter of which hung in the lobby outside the auction.

After the sale many offered postmortems, and perspective.

“The quality was so-so,” said dealer David Nahmad, who nonetheless walked off with one of the evening’s Calders, which sold for a hammer price of $1.2 million. “It’s all about merchandise. Christie’s was very lucky to get the Pincus Collection. It’s getting very hard to find quality material in any category.”

Add tonight’s total to last night’s $388.5 million haul at Christie’s, and the week is shaping up to be an historic one.

“You’ll have almost two-thirds of a billion dollars worth of art sold, when you count Philips,” said advisor Todd Levin. The evening sale at Philips de Pury and Co. is tomorrow night, so stay tuned.

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