The right-hand section from Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976 which set a new record for a piece of contemporary art at auction when it sold at Sotheby’s evening sale in New York on May 14 for $77m (£41.4m).

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

So far, the great art market bubble has belied the downturn in the economic climate and those present at the packed salerooms last week appeared unaware that a financial crisis and recession were unfolding outside.

Both evening auctions at Christie's on May 13 and at Sotheby's the following night showed that there are clearly still enough buyers with big pockets ready to spend big money on big names.

Sotheby's 85-lot evening sale on May 14 made a hammer total of $321m (£172m), within the $288m-357m presale estimate. It was the highest total Sotheby's have ever achieved and the fourth highest total in auction history. Only rivals Christie's have staged more lucrative sales: their contemporary art auction in June 2007 ($385m) their Impressionist and Modern art auction in November 2007 ($395m) and the 'Bloch Bauer' sale of November 2006 ($491m). All of these three figures include the buyer's premium.

Christie's evening sale the day before totalled $294m (£158m) hammer from only 57 lots against a presale estimate of $282m to $398.6m.

Both of these evening sales were comfortably ahead of their Impressionist and Modern equivalents the previous week, underlining the fact that contemporary art has now become the auctioneers' most important financial sector, something also borne out in Sotheby's first quarter results published last week.

The Sotheby's sale set an auction record for any piece of contemporary art when Francis Bacon's (1909-1992) Triptych, 1976 went for $77m (£41.4m) to a private European collector bidding on the telephone manned by a member of staff from the London office.

Consigned by the Moueix family, the producers of Château Pétrus wines, it was estimated in the region of $70m and there were three interested parties (all on the telephone) after the bidding opened at $60m.

It has been reported by The Art Newspaper that the buyer was Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, but a spokesman for the London-based Russian billionaire declined to comment saying "We don't get into personal matters".

The triptych itself was the centrepiece at an important exhibition of the artist's new work in 1977 at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. Its subject is based on the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus being tormented by vultures.

Dubbed by the auctioneers as "the most important work by Bacon in private hands", it broke the previous artist's record of $47m for Study of Innocent X sold at Sotheby's New York last May.

It was also the third highest price ever seen at auction. Only two works by Picasso: Garçon à la Pipe (Sotheby's, $93m, May 2004) and Dora Maar au Chat (Sotheby's, $85m, May 2006) have made more.

Christie's also offered a Bacon triptych from the same year at their sale. At 14 x 12in (36 x 31cm), Three Studies for Self-Portrait was much smaller and, carrying a guarantee, it sold at a low-estimate $25m (£13.4m).

Demonstrating Bacon's exponential rise in terms of saleroom performance, this work had sold for $2.9m at Christie's in London in June 1999, and then $5.1m at Sotheby's New York in November 2005, where it was bought by Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen from Seattle, who were vendors here.

Christie's also offered Lucian Freud's (b.1922) Benefits Supervisor Sleeping from 1995 which, selling for a mid-estimate $30m (£16.1m), became the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction. Again, this was reportedly purchased by Mr Abramovich.

The lifesize depiction of 20-stone 'Big Sue', one of the artist's regular sitters, was purchased from Freud's dealer Acquavella Galleries in New York by collectors Guy and Marion Nagger. However, the work was also part-owned by Christie's who would not elaborate further than saying they had "a direct financial interest" in the painting.

If Sotheby's took the spoils for Francis Bacon, Christie's emerged the more satisfied when it came to Mark Rothko (1903-1970). They offered No.15, a large abstract with reds and yellows dating from 1952 with an estimate in the region of $40m. The vendor was San Francisco collector Roger Evans who bought it at Sotheby's for a then-record $11m in November 1999.

Again guaranteed, two phone bidders competed up to $45m (£24.2m), the second highest price for the artist at auction, but well behind the reported $140m for No.5, 1948, brokered in a private deal between collector David Geffen and Mexican financier David Martinez in October 2006.

The prize Rothko at Sotheby's was Orange, Red, Yellow from 1956, in which the auctioneers had an ownership interest. Estimated in the region of $35m, it raised no bids on the night and was left unsold.

Banksy's (b.1975) run of saleroom success also took a dent at the Sotheby's sale with Sale Ends Today from 2006 also unsold against a $600,000-800,000 estimate.

But the sale saw a record for Yves Klein (1928-1962) when the large gold leaf painting MG 9 from c.1962 sold at $21m (£11.3m), which was then followed by the French artist's IKB1 that made $15.5m (£8.3m).

Both came from the collection of German collector Walther Lauffs and went over double their top estimates. They sold to New York agent Philippe Segalot: there was speculation that he was buying for François Pinault, the owner of Christie's, who is one of his clients.

Yet more spectacular was the quadruple-estimate $13.5m (£7.3m) paid for Takashi Murakami's (b.1962) My Lonesome Cowboy.

The 8ft (2.44m) high sculpture of a naked comic book figure swirling a lasso formed from his own semen was produced in 1998 and is currently on view at a retrospective of the prolific Japanese artist at Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Takashi Murakami is now represented by the Gagosian Gallery but the work was being sold by his former dealer, Marianne Boesky. With the artist himself present at the sale, it was bought by an anonymous buyer on the telephone.

Top lot at Phillips de Pury's evening sale on May 15 was Jean-Michel Basquiat's (1960-1988) Untitled (Fallen Angel) that sold at $10m (£5.38m) to a New York dealer reportedly for a French client. The sale total was $51.3m (£27.6m).

The results from the Part II contemporary sales further bolstered confidence in the market with Christie's making a total of $69.6m (£37.4m) with an 81 per cent selling rate, and Sotheby's totalling $91m (£49m) with an 80 per cent selling rate.

The results from Phillips de Pury's part II sales had not been released at the time of going to press.

By Alex Capon