A Francis Bacon triptych became the priciest artwork at auction in the biggest sale ever last night in New York.
Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s to Acquavella Galleries. It bested Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which Sotheby’s sold in May 2012, by more than $20 million.
A few minutes later Jeff Koons’s sculpture “Balloon Dog (Orange)” fetched $58.4 million, an auction record for a living artist.
The third-priciest lot was a graphic oversized Coca-Cola bottle by Andy Warhol that went for $57.3 million.
Sotheby’s activist investor Daniel Loeb and Blackstone Group’s James Tomilson Hill III attended the packed postwar and contemporary art auction that totaled $691.6 million -- well in excess of the previous record of $495 million set by a Christie’s sale of contemporary art in May. Eleven of the 69 lots last night sold for more than $20 million and only six failed to find buyers.
Records were smashed for 10 artists, including Willem de Kooning, Donald Judd, Ad Reinhardt, Lucio Fontana, Christopher Wool, Wade Guyton and Wayne Thiebaud.
“It’s a new world,” said Abigail Asher, with art advisory Guggenheim Asher Associates. “It feels like a reinvention of the art market. I’m overwhelmed.”
The results were a reversal from Christie’s disappointing Impressionist and modern art sales last week. Its Nov. 5 evening sale tallied $144.3 million, just $2 million more than the Bacon last night.
“After the flat sales last week, it’s incredible to see how much energy there is in the contemporary-art market,” said art dealer David Zwirner, the underbidder for Koons’s puppy.
Closely held Christie’s estimated the 1969 Bacon triptych - - three canvases depicting artist Lucian Freud -- at more than $85 million. At least half a dozen competed for it, including two Asian bidders, over six minutes.
Acquavella bought it through Lock Kresler, Christie’s head of private sales based in London. Last week, the gallery bought the top lot at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale, an Alberto Giacometti sculpture, for $50 million.
Koons’s 10-foot-tall stainless-steel puppy was consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant. Christie’s estimated it at $35 million to $55 million and guaranteed “Balloon Dog” would sell for an undisclosed minimum, financed through third parties.
The price smashed Koons’s previous record of $33.7 million and the record for the most expensive living artist, held by Gerhard Richter, whose 1968 painting, “Domplatz, Mailand,” sold for $37.1 million at Sotheby’s in May.
A Richter painting owned by Eric Clapton fetched $20.9 million, just above the low end of the presale estimate. While the bidding was measured, it brought a good return to its owner, being part of a trio of paintings that sold at Sotheby’s for $3.4 million in 2001. (Prices include buyer’s commission; estimates do not.)
In all, 22 lots, or almost a third of the sale, were guaranteed. One was “Apocalypse Now,” a 1988 painting by Wool, who’s the subject of a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The work spelled “Sell the house sell the car sell the kids” in black on white. It fetched $26.5 million, more than three times Wool’s previous record. Art dealer Christophe van de Weghe bought the work for a client.
“People look at art as a hard asset,” the dealer said.
Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman of contemporary art, said the sale wasn’t indicative of a market bubble. Paris-based art adviser Loic Malle wasn’t sure.
“It’s either a beginning of something or the end of something,” Malle said.
The Bacon work came up early during the auction, which had a pre-sale estimated tally of $670.4 million. A third party provided Christie’s with a guarantee for “Three Studies.”
The artist’s previous auction record of $86.3 million was set by a much more somber triptych in May of 2008, the last heady auction before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the 1976 work.
Last night’s group was initially placed as lot 32 in the catalog. Then yesterday afternoon, the auction house alerted clients by e-mail that it was moved to lot 8A, preceding other multimillion-dollar works by Rothko, Warhol and Richter.
“People have their pockets full,” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, valuation specialist and president of New York-based BSJ Fine Art. “If you move it up in the sale it means you have a greater pool of potential buyers and it mitigates the risk of the guarantor.”
Positioning the Bacon as lot 8A also might have been aimed at attracting Asian bidding.
“Eight is a lucky number in China,” said Eli Klein, whose Manhattan gallery specializes in contemporary Chinese art. “It’s not going to make or break a deal, but it’s preferable to Chinese collectors. If they have a chance to buy edition No. 8, they would.”
Gorvy said of the repositioning: “It seemed to work.”