Rothko, Richter Set Records in $389 Million Auction

Mark Rothko’s fiery “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold for a record $86.9 million at Christie’s in New York last night in the biggest-ever postwar and contemporary art auction.

Artist records were also set for Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Barnett Newman, Alexander Calder and Yves Klein, among others, in last night’s $388.5 million, 59-lot sale. It exceeded Christie’s $384.7 million tally in May 2007, the previous contemporary auction champ, as well as the high $330 million presale estimate.

“Billionaires have gone global,” New York dealer Jack Tilton said upon exiting the midtown salesroom. “It’s very healthy for the market, obviously.”

The 8-by-7-foot Rothko surged past its $45 million presale high estimate amid multiple telephone bids. Christie’s said it was the highest price for a contemporary artwork, displacing an $86.3 million Francis Bacon at Sotheby’s in May 2008.

Last night’s 1961 Rothko was one of 13 artworks from the estate of David Pincus, the retired chairman of apparel manufacturer Pincus Brothers-Maxwell, who died in December. It was on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Pincus was a trustee. Pincus and his wife, Gerry, bought it from New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1967.

Another Pincus trophy, Pollock’s canvas “No. 28,” sold for $23 million, almost doubling the previous Pollock record of $11.7 million, set in 2004. Newman’s 1952 painting “Onement V” went for $22.5 million, surpassing the high estimate of $15 million and the artist’s record of $5.2 million.

The Pincus 13 totaled $174.9 million.

Feeling Comfortable

“The art market is ignoring European woes,” said Randy Slifka, a New York collector and money manager. “People feel comfortable buying prime works by world-class artists.”

Richter’s 1993 painting “Abstraktes Bild” went for $21.8 million, besting the previous record by $1 million set six months earlier at Sotheby’s. All six Richters offered last night sold.

Klein’s 1962 fire-color painting “FC 1” soared to $36.5 million, surpassing the artist’s previous auction record of $23.6 million, set at Sotheby’s in May 2008.

Estimated between $30 million and $40 million, the painting’s sale was guaranteed by a third party. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Oceana, an international organization focused on ocean conservation.

Christie’s charges buyers 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, plus 20 percent from $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent above $1 million. Presale estimates don’t include the buyer’s premium.

Calder ‘Lily’

Calder was another star of the evening. His standing mobile “Lily of Force” (1945) sold for $18.6 million, topping the Calder record by $8.2 million -- set minutes earlier in the sale.

The first Calder to set a record, “Snow Flurry,” came from the collection of the late architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes. It features white metal disks on thin wires, and was bought by Xin Li, Christie’s vice president and Asian business development director, who typically bids for Chinese clients.

The last lot of the sale, Warhol’s “Reel Basquiat” (1984), was purchased by Russian real-estate tycoon Vladislav Doronin, chairman of Moscow-based Capital Group, seated next to Warhol collector Peter Brant. The work fetched $3.3 million, above its high estimate.

“I’ve never seen people wanting to shop so badly,” said Christophe van de Weghe, an Upper East Side art dealer. “People didn’t want to be under-bidders. They wanted to win.”

Today’s Muse highlights include: Martin Gayford on London art, Ryan Sutton on food.