Sotheby's Banks a Sturdy $266.6 Million, As Bacon and Lichtenstein Tie for Top Lot at $44 Million Each

The Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Sotheby's
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

NEW YORK — Trophy hunting for postwar name brands continued to spark the art market at Sotheby’s $266.6-million evening contemporary sale as no less than three paintings easily hurdled the $30 million mark. The tally more than doubled last May’s $128.1 million total as 32 of the 46 lots sold made over one million dollars.

Five artist records were set. Of those, seven exceeded the $10 million mark, including the tied top lots, Francis Bacon’s ferociously distorted “Figure writing Reflected in a Mirror” (1976) and Roy Lichtenstein’s pretty, though vacant, “Sleeping Girl” (1964). Both paintings sold to separate telephone bidders for $44,882,500, exceeding identical pre-sale expectation of $30-40 million. Though wildly different in subject matter and taste, the two performed like identical twins, with bidding opening at $22 million, attracting at least five bidders and quickly ticking skyward at one million dollar increments until $37 million when it dropped to $500,000 jumps.

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern specialist Charlie Moffett took the winning bid on the Bacon, repeating his feat of last week when he won the Edvard Munch “Scream” for a world-record $119.9 million. The bidders were anonymous. One of the Bacon underbidders was dealer David Nahmad, a player not previously known for chasing the legendary Irish painter.

The 36-square inch Lichtenstein, described by Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s star auctioneer as “the cover girl of the night,” nicked the artist's previous record set by the comicbook text bubble, “I can see the whole room!...and there’s nobody in it” (1961), which sold for $43.2 million at Christie’s New York last November against a $35-45 million pre-sale estimate. 

The severely cropped image of the snoozing Pop Art blonde, resplendent in uniformly applied Benday dots, resided in the collection of L.A. art patrons Phil and Bea Gersh since they acquired the work from the storied Ferus Gallery in 1964. Mrs. Gersh paid $1,000 for the canvas, according to Irving Blum, the impresario of the epoch-making gallery. (Efforts by Sotheby’s to market the Pop image as a kind of American Marie-Therese didn’t quite make it.)

Another later and larger Lichtenstein, “Sailboats III” (1976), also drew five competitors and ran up to $11,842,500 (est. $6-8 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1998 for $2,205,750. That healthy jump pretty much reflects the buoyant state of the current market.

Even with the big shot prices, including Andy Warhol's iconic “Double Elvis-Ferus Type” (1963), which sold to New York dealer and Warhol market maker Jose Mugrabi for $37,042,500 (est. $30-50 million), the atmosphere in the room felt sleepy, as if Lichtenstein’s girl cast a low-blood sugar spell. “I felt everybody was falling asleep tonight,” said Manfredi della Gherardesca of the London based MDG Fine Arts Ltd. “There was nothing here I would kill for.”

Eleven of the 57 lots offered failed to sell for a 19 percent buy-in rate by lot and ten percent by value. Of those casualties, Charles Ray's life-size and nude "Aluminum Girl" from 2003 (est. $4-6 million) and offered from the Adam Sender collection failed to elicit any bids.

Still Gherardesca snared Yves Klein’s “Untitled Monogold” in gold leaf on pressed wood board from 1959 for $1,538,500 (est. $700-900,000), a work which last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2001 for £201,500 ($293,988) and Damien Hirst’s butterfly-encrusted and gloss paint tondo, “Awakening” (2007) for $1,650,500. Asked about the 84-inch diameter Hirst, Gherardesca said it was “playroom decoration.”

Growing more serious, the art advisor noted, “there is a great need for quality and that’s what drives the market. Buyers are so active, they’re sucking up all the material.”

That seemed the case as Cy Twombly’s handsomely scribbled blackboard composition in house paint and wax crayon, “Untitled (New York City)” (1970) made a record $17,442,500 (est. $15-20 million), selling to L.A. dealer Stavros Merjos, beating the mark set at Christie’s New York last May (2011) when “Untitled” (1967) sold for $15.2 million.

Not surprisingly, works by Gerhard Richter continued to captivate the market as yet another variation on his "Abstraktes Bild,” lusciously squeegeed in red, green, and yellow hues from 1992 and measuring a trophy-sized 78-by-63-inches, made $16,882,500 (est. $8-10 million). New York dealer Dominique Levy of L&M Arts was one of the underbidders.

L&M had more luck with Alexander Calder’s sublime mobile in red, “Sumac VI” (1952), nabbing the sculpture for $5,906,500 (est. $2.5-3,5 million). L&M founder Robert Mnuchin bid for the gallery.

Another Francis Bacon oil-on-canvas entry, “Study for a Portrait” (1978), measuring just 14 by 12 inches, sold to New York collector Donald Bryant for $4,282,500 (est. $4-6 million). Bryant sat in the front row, biding his time until the Bacon appeared. “This is my first Bacon,” said the collector afterwards, “and I should have bought one years ago, but it’s a good way to get into the Bacon market. I need to have more than one.”

Bryant, long known for his contemporary art holdings, said he was moving more to Old Masters. “I’m not buying much of contemporary art anymore. It’s a total change for me.” Bryant also said a strong point of the work was its subject, that of the darkly handsome John Edwards, a close friend of Bacon’s. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2008 for £2,036,500 ($4,047,098), a wash for the seller and a possible boon for the newbie Bacon collector.

While both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have seemingly relegated more cutting-edge contemporary art to day sale events, there were a few exceptions here, including Glenn Ligons’s polemical oil stick, gesso, and graphite-on-linen composition, “Black Like Me #1” (1992), which sold for a record $1,314,500 (est. 600-800,000).

Even with all of the higher-flying lots, quieter entries also made an impression, such as the early and rarified Arshile Gorky abstraction, “Khorkom” (ca. 1938), which sold to New York dealer Jack Tilton for $2,770,500 (est. $3-4 million). “People are looking for the trendy thing and not the connoisseurship thing,” said Tilton, expressing delight in his purchase. “They’re not a lot of those early Gorkys.”

"There's a global hunger for icons," said Tobias Meyer, the evening's auctioneer and Sotheby's contemporary head, "you can see from the depth of bidding that this is a broad and deep market."

Exiting Sotheby’s, the York Avenue sidewalk was dominated by security guards and NYPD, on guard for the continued protests of a union dispute involving locked out art handlers. The huge prices realized inside the building seemed like a cruel reminder of the situation on the ground.

The contemporary evening action plays its third act Thursday at Phillips de Pury & Co.

To see images of the star lots from Sotheby's contemporary sale, click on the slide show.