Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Nets $375.1 M., House Record, With $75.1 M. Rothko in Front

Sotheby’s saw its highest-ever auction total last night during a spirited, two-hour-long postwar and contemporary sale in which auctioneer Tobias Meyer hammered $375.1 million worth of art, including buyer’s premium, a sum that peaked just over the house’s high estimate of $374.7 million for the 69 lots on offer. Fifty-eight of those works sold, for a respectable 84.1 percent sell-through rate by lot, with new artist records for a number of Abstract-Expressionists—Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky and Hans Hofmann—and for the 40-year-old painter Wade Guyton.

That $375.1 million figure edged out the total combined value of last week’s uneven Impressionist and Modern art evening sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which together brought in about $368 million.

The sale was bolstered by an impressive 1954 Mark Rothko and one of Francis Bacon’s iconic Pope paintings, also from that year. The record-setting Pollock went for $40 million in just three minutes, shooting up from an opening bid of $20 million, a testament to just how rarely the artist comes up at auction and the eagerness of those looking to buy him.

The Rothko, owned by Sotheby’s longtime chief auctioneer and chairman John Marion, saw spirited bidding from the room and from the phones. David Nahmad had a shot at this cover lot at $38 million, but as other bidders fell away, Sotheby’s Chairman Lisa Dennison and Charlie Moffett, vice chairman at the Impressionist and Modern department, bid it past its high estimate, on telephones at opposite sides of the room.

Mr. Moffett’s bidder made a few aggressive offers, jumping from $41 million to $43 million, and later from $56 million to $60 million, but each time Ms. Dennison’s bidder parried with another $1 million increment. However, in the end, he outlasted her, and after eight minutes Mr. Meyer hammered down lot 19, for Mr. Moffett, at $67 million—$75.1 million with premium.

The Rothko, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), is now second in the artist’s record book only to the 1961 Orange, Red, Yellow, which earned $86.9 million at Christie’s New York in May. That sale made $388.5 million, the most ever for any contemporary auction, an accolade this evening’s sale missed by only about $13 million.

“This painting is from one of the most important periods for Rothko,” said Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, and former curator of the Mark Rothko Foundation, after the sale. A formative trip to Europe by Rothko just before 1954 led to his discovery of the effect of candles flickering on frescos, and after this time one sees the colors usually associated with the more desirable Rothkos. “After this trip, the colors were more strident,” Ms. Clearwater said, “They seem to fight with each other, the layers of green, orange and magenta. Before this they were more chalky.”

Andy Warhol also had a particularly good evening, with seven of his eight works on offer selling for a total of $54 million, well above a high estimate of $45 million expected for that selection, thanks to a well-stocked grouping of his highly desirable “Death and Disaster” paintings. Peter Brant purchased a Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) (1963) from this group for $15.2 million, and Christopher Eykyn, of the Upper East Side and London gallery Eykyn Maclean, purchased another featuring the actor James Cagney for the high estimate of $6.5 million, underbidding on a similar piece, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) (1963), which sold moments before for $9.2 million, setting a new record for a Warhol work on paper.

Such stars made up for later lots, which saw modest bidding and sold to an emptier room, one that had been exhausted by an auction that took one hour to reach lot 26. There was a marked drop-off in action after lot 40—in this latter block of 29 lots, nine (out of an auction total of 11) failed to sell and 13 (out of a total of 20) went for below-estimate prices.

Among the more highly estimated lots that passed were Jeff Koons’s 1997 Bread With Egg, estimated at $3.5 million to $4 million, which failed to sell at $3 million (though Mr. Koons’s record for the medium is only $5.1 million), and a Lucio Fontana sculpture, which reached $1.7 million and would have been a record in the medium for the artist had it sold.

“Well, we tried,” Mr. Meyer said, as a painting by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat passed at $2.1 million. And did they ever! The work had sold for only $400,000 when it last came up at auction, at Sotheby’s New York, in 2004.

Toward the end of the sale, a large 2007 Wade Guyton painting bearing one of his trademark Epson–printed Xs sold for $782,500 to a bidder at the back of the near-empty room. The piece was good enough to beat out his previous record of $676,924, set exactly one month ago at Sotheby’s London and would fit in perfectly at his critically lauded show now on view at the Whitney Museum.

At the press conference afterward, Mr. Meyer called the sale’s success an “ode to quality.”

“The contemporary department was the poor cousin to the Impressionist department for years,” said dealer Linda Silverman, who headed contemporary art in her time at Sotheby’s between 1972 and 1983. She recalled a time when Rothkos were difficult to sell at $180,000 and said tonight’s results impressed her. “I think it was an incredible collection of high-quality works of art from spectacular collections that I knew about many years ago when I worked here. I knew these collectors. They collected and waited, and chose the right paintings by the artists, and that was borne out by the prices tonight.”

The contemporary auctions continue Wednesday at Christie’s. All auction research courtesy of Artnet, all images courtesy Sotheby’s.

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