Buzzed on Coca Cola and Ice Cream, Bidders Giddily Bought $222.5 Million in Art at Sotheby's Contemporary Sale

Sotheby's rousing contemporary evening sale reaffirmed without a reasonable doubt the evidence of a surging art market recovery, selling $222,454,500, comfortably above the $214.4 million high estimate. The statistics were incredible, with all but five of the 54 lots finding buyers for a buy-in rate by lot of nine percent and three percent by value. Six works fetched more than ten million dollars and 45 of the 49 lots that sold went for over a million dollars.

Remarkably, the average lot price was a jumbo $4,539,887 — the highest per lot price in the category since May 2008, when Sotheby's achieved a $4.9 million average and a jumbo tally of $362 million. Tuesday evening's result crushes the figure from a year ago when $134.4 million sold, and exceeds the May 2010 result of $189.9 million.

Five artist records were set, including the mark for Jim Hodges, whose 30-foot-high hanging floral curtain of silk, cotton, polyester and thread, "When We Stay" from 1997 (est. $500-700,000), which sold to a telephone bidder for just over $2 million. San Francisco dealer Tony Meier was the underbidder. It pulverized the previous Hodge's mark of $724,068 that was set in 2007 at Phillips de Pury in London.

Peter Brant, seated next to his glamorous wife Stephanie Seymour, chased Urs Fischer's "Untitled (Candle)," a 2003 sculpture of a life-size nude woman in wax, wick, and pigment from an edition of three plus one artist proof (est. $400-600,000), but lost to a telephone bidder for a record $1,082,500. Later, a 1990 Richard Prince joke painting, "White Woman" (est. $2.5-3.5 million), sold to New York art advisor Mark Fletcher for $3.2 million.

It became crystal clear early on that Sotheby's had assembled a crisply edited sale of younger artists, Pop material, and choice Ab-Ex works to maximize competition. It was a formula that performed as if on banned steroids. Powerful entries soared, such as Cady Noland's "Gibbet" (1993-94), featuring a perforated American flag in aluminum, wood, and fabric (est. $600-800,000), which lured a record $1,762,500. New York dealer David Zwirner was the underbidder.

Buyer appetite seemed voracious, as evidenced by one telephone bidder (identified as paddle #64) who scooped up four works, from Andreas Gursky's "Frankfurt" stock exchange photo from 2007 (est. $1.2-1.8 million), which was underbid by Larry Gagosian — who recently became the artist’s primary dealer — to sell at $2.1 million, to Roy Lichtenstein's astonishing seaside "Still Life with Lobster" (1972) that sold for $6 million against a $5-7 million estimate. The Lichtenstein carried a so-called "irrevocable bid," a form of third-party guarantee that assured the work would sell, no matter the reception.

Sotheby's lined up four such guarantees, including for a Pop art classic of the sale, Roy Lichtenstein's frothy and Ben-Day-dot-punctuated "Ice Cream Soda" from 1962 (est. $12-18 million), which sold to a telephone bidder for $14 million. Susan Dunne of the Pace Gallery was one of the stubborn underbidders. Remarkably, the picture has scarcely been exhibited since its early days, when it sold to a private collector in March 1962 for $500, according to Barbara Castelli, the widow of the great art dealer and Poppurveyor Leo Castelli. The asking price was $650 but the collector received a generous discount.

According to Castelli, Lichtenstein brought the painting to the gallery in late February, and it sold a week later. Asked about the gaping price differential, she shrugged, saying, "after all, it was 48 years ago."Though not identified in the catalogue, the painting was consigned by a former Castelli gallery employee, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, also known as a noted photographer and curator who was married to the late Michael Moorhead Rea, a onetime trustee at the Guggenheim, the Norton Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Rea was also the consigner of the evening's star cover lot, Andy Warhol's hand-painted acrylic, pencil, and Letraset canvas "Coca-Cola (4) [Large Coca-Cola]," also from the Pop-perfect year of 1962, that sold to a telephone bidder for $35.4 million on a $20-25 million estimate, making it the fourth most expensive Warhol to sell at auction. Bidding opened at $15 million and quickly motored along at one-million-dollar increments until $28 million, when the pace slowed to $500,000 bumps. There were three telephone bidders and considerable action in the room, thanks to Dominique Levy of L&M Arts and Warhol maven Jose Mugrabi, who wound up as the underbidder.

Rea apparently acquired the work at Christie's New York in November 1983 for a once-hefty $143,000. Unlike Warhol's meticulously traced drawing of a Coca-Cola advertisement, purloined from a newspaper page, this huge example — at 81 ¾ inches the largest of the handful of works he did on the subject during the period — is looser, with the trademark sign that hovered over the streamlined bottle like a halo reduced in size and dropped lower to the neck, allowing the last Letraset letters of Cola to disappear over the right edge of the canvas.

A beautifully rendered 24-by-18-inch Warhol drawing from the same "Coca Cola" series, dated 1962 and estimated at $1-1.5 million, went to Gagosian for $1.5 million. London dealer Harry Blain was the underbidder for the work, which last sold at Sotheby's London in October 2007 for $954,369.

In a bit of pre-bidding auction theater, buffed waiters had born trays of the six-ounce glass bottles, already opened with straws stuck in, as the standing-room-only crowd poured into the salesroom. It was hokey but apparently effective.

But in a post-sale news conference, auctioneer Tobias Meyer said that the fizzy performance was yet another indication that "Andy has become the icon of global desire." One journalist asked why Sotheby's Warhol trailed so far behind Phillips de Pury's "Men in Her Life," which made $63.3 million on Monday evening. "We don’t comment about other auction houses," snapped Meyer.

Of the night's four guaranteed works, a third assured performer after the two Lichtensteins was found in the Ab-Ex arena, as an untitled Mark Rothko

composition from 1955 — handsomely scaled at 91 and 5/8 by 69 inches — managed to elicit only a single bid, selling to a telephone for $22.5 million on a $20-30 million estimate. Sotheby's identified the buyer, who undoubtedly was the guarantor, as Asian but declined to elaborate.

Thewidely exhibited Rothko, which had been acquired by the seller a year before the artist's suicide in 1970, didn't excite the salesroom as muchas a fabulous Arshile Gorky work on paper in ink and crayon did.Titled "Housatonic," the Armenian artist's 1943 abstraction catapulted to $3.7 million against a $800,000-1.2 million estimate. 

Surprisingly, some offerings that Sotheby's had pitched as superb examples even though they weren't performed beautifully, as illustrated by Francis Bacon's awkward and underwhelming "Figure in Movement" from 1985 (est. $7-10 million), which sold to a telephone bidder for a rambunctious $14 million. It was sold by Bacon's London physician Dr. Paul Brass, who had received the painting as a gift from the artist in 1985, when the top price for a Bacon at auction was $500,000.

Bacon, whose works easily fetched over $25 million during the recent art boom — including a triptych that made a silly $86 million at Sotheby's, selling to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — literally disappeared off the radar screen in the fall of 2008. Hopefully, better Bacons will creep out now that a lesser one has hurdled its high estimate.

But on the whole, Sotheby's trotted out tremendous examples by the bluest of the blue-chip artists, like the rare and fabulously blurry 1965 Gerhard Richter painting "Matrosen (Sailors)," which went to a telephone bidder for $13.2 million against a $6-8 million estimate. Of the fewcasualties of the evening was David Smith's stunning 1946 welded-steel piece"Race for Survival (Spectre of Profit)," which failed to grab any bids on its $1.5-2.5 million estimate. The title was probably distasteful to today's profit-centric market.

It was difficult to detect any other weakness in the evening's roster of trophies, including Louise Bourgeois's hotly-competed-for 19-inch-high bronze "Spider III" sculpture from 1995 (est. $600-800,000), which sold to San Francisco dealer Tony Meier for $3.6 million after he beat out six other bidders.

"The market is very strong," said Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann, who is known for his Russian clients and who bid on the Bourgeois.Referring to the recent Federal Reservedecision to buy billions of United States government bonds — and reflecting a European attitude — the dealer said, "A lot of paper is printed now by the American government, and people will spend this paper for pleasure and investment."

Switching back to the sculpture he tried but failed to get, Lachmann added, "Bourgeois is a genius."

The evening action finale is at Christie's on Wednesday.