Protest Disrupts $72 Million Auction as Warhol’s Marilyn Sells

A pile of porcelain sunflower seeds, an Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe and a Gerhard Richter abstract sold last night at a London auction that was interrupted by a protest at U.K. government cuts.

Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art, which raised 44.4 million pounds ($72 million) with fees, briefly stalled when more than 10 activists from the Arts Against Cuts group unfurled a red banner reading “Orgy of the Rich’’ and threw photocopied 50-pound notes at onlookers.

The disruption didn’t stop spending by the world’s rich art collectors. Auction sales of contemporary works are recovering after the financial crisis wiped as much as 50 percent off the value of some pieces.

“There are new buyers in the market,’’ London-based dealer Stephen Friedman said. “There was a lot of bidding from Russia and Asia, some not very discriminating. Tonight did include some good pieces. Overall, demand was strong.’’

The sale began with a pile of Ai Weiwei hand-painted seeds of the same type that the Chinese artist has used to cover the floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The 100-kilogram mound sold to one of three telephone bidders for 349,250 pounds, almost tripling the high estimate of 120,000 pounds.

“There were 100,000 seeds in the pile, so that’s 3.50 pounds each,’’ Sotheby’s London-based specialist Alexander Branczik said.

Multicolor Monroe

Warhol’s acrylic silkscreen “Nine Multicolored Marilyns (Reversal Series)” sold to a Sotheby’s staff member taking bids from an unidentified client in the room for 3.2 million pounds, beating the upper estimate of 3 million pounds. Another version of the work, which dates from 1979 to 1986, sold for 4.1 million pounds at Christie’s International, London, at the height of the market in June 2008.

Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, took the telephone bids of the buyer of the 1990 Richter “Abstraktes Bild,” which made the top price of 7.2 million pounds. The canvas, with white and red oil paint applied with a squeegee, was valued at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds. It had been acquired by a U.S.-based collector for an undisclosed price from the San Francisco-based dealer Anthony Meier in 2007. A minimum price had been guaranteed by a Sotheby’s “irrevocable bid.”

The biggest surprise was the artist record 3.1 million pounds paid by a German-based art adviser for the unique 1993 two-part bronze sculpture “Conversation Piece’’ by the Spanish artist Juan Munoz. The life-size group of a mother and child had been entered by a European collector who had owned it since 1993 and was estimated at as much as 800,000 pounds.

Russian Angel

Alina Davey, who works in Sotheby’s London-based client services department, dealing with Russian clients, was a frequent telephone bidder. She bought a 1987 Christopher Wool painting for 409,250 pounds and a 2004 Takashi Murakami painting, “Skulls Rock” at 493,250 pounds. A 3-foot-high bronze version of Antony Gormley’s 1997 “Angel of the North” fetched 623,650 pounds.

The auction had a presale estimate of as much as 43 million pounds at hammer prices. All but five of 59 lots found buyers. The total was down on the equivalent event last year, which raised 54.1 million pounds from 77 lots with only three unsold.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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