Contemporary art raises US$375m and sets a record for Sotheby's

Top prices for works by Rothko and Pollock show that the market for modern works is 'happy, healthy and well', says auctioneer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 2:57am

Sotheby's has staged the biggest auction in its 268-year history, led by a US$75 million Mark Rothko and a record-setting US$40 million work by Jackson Pollock at its post-war art sale.

Tuesday's auction, which raised a total of US$375 million, showed the buoyancy of an art market that has been on a roll since the 2008 financial crisis. Sotheby's said it was the best result it had for a single auction, and it beat high pre-sale estimates.

A "screaming pope" piece by Francis Bacon sold for nearly US$30 million, a Willem de Kooning fetched just under US$20 million and a US$17.4 million Gerhard Richter augmented the muscular results for the vibrant Rothko masterpiece No. 1 (Royal, Red and Blue) and Pollock's seminal drip painting, Number 4, 1951.

Officials said they were thrilled. "If you want to talk about the market being happy, healthy and well, well, here it is," said Tobias Meyer, auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art.

"That's probably about as good as it gets."

Buyers were found for 85 per cent of the 69 lots, including virtually every major piece. The sale was driven by collectors who flexed their financial muscles after sitting on their hands a week ago at Impressionist and modern art auctions.

The Rothko and the Pollock were true trophies. The former was consigned by Texan oil heiress Anne Marion, whose husband John Marion had been Sotheby's chairman and chief auctioneer. Almost three metres tall, the painting was among eight pieces selected by Rothko for his solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954.

No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) is seen by critics as one of the finest examples of Rothko's characteristic style - a simple, but arresting juxtaposition of blocks of colour. In 1982, Ben Heller, a major collector and private dealer of abstract expressionism, sold the Rothko to Anne Marion for less than US$500,000, he said.

Bidding for the Rothko started at US$28 million, but immediately jumped to US$35 million. As increments of US$1 million drove the price to US$56 million, a bidder, who prevailed, upped the ante by bidding US$60 million.

The work, which Sotheby's had estimated would sell for US$35 million to US$50 million, marked a rare opportunity for trophy hunters, having been in the same hands for 30 years. At US$75,122,500 including commission, it was the second-highest price paid for a Rothko at auction. The Pollock fetched US$40.4 million, smashing the artist's

previous auction record, established six months ago when Number 28 (1956) from the estate of collector David Pincus sold for US$23 million at Christie's.

Classic drip paintings by Pollock are hard to come by, said Suzanne Gyorgy, global head of art advisory and finance at Citi Private Bank. "Many of the top collectors we work with, when you ask them what's on their wish list, a drip Jackson Pollock is one of the top items," she said.

The auctions were scheduled to wrap up yesterday with Christie's sale of post-war and contemporary art.

Reuters, Bloomberg