Christie's evening sale set new highs for Rothko, Klein, Pollock and Richter and made the highest total ever for a sale in this category. After the auction on May 8 people were left wondering whether the market was reaching a similar bubble to the one that collapsed following the fall of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008.
With Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury all staging lucrative sales, the hammer total for the week was $779.4m (£502.8m). This made for the highest-grossing Contemporary series since May 2008 and, when added to the $456.9m (£294.8m) from the Impressionist and Modern art sales the week before, the overall amount of money changing hands over the fortnight was the third highest on record, only eclipsed by the amounts generated in May 2008 and November 2007.
Christie's evening sale raised $343.3m (£221.5m) hammer which was above the $236-329m presale estimate and just outscored the previous record for a Contemporary art sale of $341m (£171m) set in the same rooms five years ago.
There were no fewer than 14 individual artist records, including highs for a host of key abstract painters.
Of the 59 lots, 56 sold (95%), and the top price of the night, as expected, came for Mark Rothko's (1903-1970) oil on canvas Orange, Red, Yellow from 1961 which sold for $77.5m (£50m) and became the most expensive post-War work of art ever sold at auction. The previous record was Francis Bacon's Triptych (1976) that sold for $77m (£41.4m) hammer at Sotheby's New York in May 2008 and was reportedly bought by Roman Abramovich.
The Rothko also set fifth highest all-time auction price (in terms of pounds sterling).
It came from the collection of the late clothing manufacturer and art collector David Pincus who died in November. Estimated at $35m-45m, the bidding rose by million-dollar increments before it was knocked down to an anonymous phone bidder. The previous record for Rothko was the $65m (£32.5m) paid at Sotheby's in May 2007 for the 1950 abstract White Center (Yellow, Pink, Lavender on Rose).
Indeed, works from the Pincus consignment provided a large chunk of the sale total as further auction records came for Jackson Pollock's (1912-1956) Number 28, 1951, a drip and brushwork oil on canvas, at $20.5m (£13.2m), and Barnett Newman's (1905-1970) Onement V at $20m (£12.9m). Both also sold to anonymous phone bidders.
Elsewhere at the sale was Yves Klein's (1928-1962) dry pigments and synthetic resin on panel FC1 (Fire Color 1) which sold at another record $32.5m (£20.9m) against a $30m-40m estimate. The late picture from the year of the artist's death was billed as 'most important work by Yves Klein ever to be offered at auction'. Again it sold anonymously.
The record for Richter came for his 1993 Abstraktes Bild (798-3) oil on canvas which sold above estimate at $19.4m (£12.5m) and continued the market roll for the German painter seen since the opening of the one-man show at Tate Modern.
Sotheby's evening sale the following night made a $235m (£151.6m) hammer total which was within the $221.6m-311.9m presale estimate. On the night, 46 out of the 57 lots sold (81%) with a joint-top lot - Roy Lichtenstein's (1923-1997) Sleeping Girl and Francis Bacon's (1909-1992) Figure Writing Reflected In Mirror which both took $40m (£25.8m) against $30-40m estimates.
The latter, a painting thought to depict Bacon's lover George Dyer, had featured in the 1977 exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris where it was purchased by the vendor. It drew half a dozen bidders and was knocked down to a phone bidder. Meanwhile, Lichtenstein's comic book-style painting was also fresh to the market having been purchased from the Ferus Gallery in 1964. The price was a record for the arist at auction.
The trio of evening sales ended on May 10 at Phillips de Pury where the hammer total was $75.9m (£49m), bang on the presale low-estimate, with 35 of the 44 lots sold (80%).
Here the top lot was the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on wood, Untitled (1981) which sold for a record $14.5m (£9.35m). The vendor of this guaranteed lot with an estimate of $9-12m, was Robert Lehrman who had bought it from the Anina Nosei Gallery in Soho, New York in 1982.
The buyer's premium at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury is 25/20/12%
Exchange Rate: £1 = $1.55