Rothko, Pollock Lead Sotheby’s Top Tally, $375 Million

Sotheby’s bounced back from last week’s lackluster sales with its biggest-ever auction, setting records for six artists including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Arshile Gorky.

The $375.1 million tally for contemporary art surpassed the high presale estimate of $374.8 million, even with 11 of 69 lots failing to sell. (Presale estimates don’t include the buyer’s premium, while the sale total does.)

Collectors looked beyond Washington’s fiscal challenges and a 4 percent decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index since last week’s re-election of President Barack Obama.

“The art market is coated with Teflon,” said Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, established by collector Eli Broad. “Fiscal cliffs, Eurozone crises, hurricanes, nothing can really stop it. People are looking for a place to put their money.”

Dealers said the caliber of the work boosted results.

“You don’t get new records unless you have things that are perceived to be of the highest quality and are fresh to the market,” said Frances Beatty, vice president of Richard L. Feigen & Co., a New York gallery. “In the contemporary market, there’s a pretty deep list of collectors who want to reach for trophy pictures.”

Mark Rothko’s “No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue)” led the sale, selling for $75.1 million, just shy of the artist’s auction record of $86.9 million, set at Christie’s in May.

The victor was a client of Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Impressionist and modern art, who deals primarily with U.S. buyers. Moffett facilitated the winning bid for Edvard Munch’s record-setting “The Scream” in May.

Kohl Group

Last night started with active bidding for eight Abstract Expressionist paintings consigned by Sidney Kohl, co-founder of closely held finance firm Alliant Co., and his wife, Dorothy.

The group was led by a 1951 drip painting by Pollock, “Number 4,” that sold for $40.4 million to a client represented by Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s chairman of North and South America. The price smashed Pollock’s previous auction record established just six months ago, when “Number 28” (1956) sold for $23 million at Christie’s.

The record Pollock is a maze of color and movement, layered all over with red, blue, yellow, green and ochre oil paint, cloudy aluminum paint, and spidery drips of black enamel.

‘Great Pollock’

“It’s a great Pollock,” said art dealer Dorothea Elkon, whose late husband, Robert Elkon, sold the painting to the Kohls in 1974 for $105,000. “I can’t tell you how many collectors have asked me over the years if Sidney would sell it. He simply didn’t want to.”

The work had been guaranteed by Sotheby’s, a third party or a combination thereof, according to the catalog. A third party also provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot, ensuring that the work would sell.

The Kohl group, which tallied $101.3 million, also set records for Gorky, Kline and Hans Hofmann. The couple began collecting Abstract Expressionism in the early 1970s. The pieces they sold had been off the market for almost 40 years.

The Rothko was consigned by Anne Marion, owner of Burnett Cos. in Fort Worth, Texas, whose husband John L. Marion had been Sotheby’s chairman and chief auctioneer.

In 1982, Ben Heller, a major collector and private dealer of Abstract Expressionism, sold the Rothko for less than $500,000, he said. More than 9 feet tall, it was among eight pieces selected by the artist for his solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954.

Bacon’s ‘Pope’

Other highlights of the sale included Francis Bacon’s “Untitled (Pope),” a 1954 oil on canvas depicting a screaming man, which sold for $29.8 million.

Seven works by Andy Warhol tallied $54 million. The priciest was a 1964 unique silkscreen on paper, “Suicide,” which sold for $16.3 million, double the presale high estimate. The work set an auction record for Warhol’s work on paper.

“It’s all about the quality,” said Leonard Riggio, the founder of Barnes & Noble Inc.

The contemporary segment had mixed results. A 2007 painting by Wade Guyton, who has a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, went for $782,500. But pieces by Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince and Ed Ruscha failed to sell.

“The high end of the market really weathers the economic ups and downs,” said Suzanne Gyorgy, global head of art advisory and finance at Citi Private Bank. “The contemporary part of the market is where we see volatility.”

Christie’s sale of postwar and contemporary art tonight is expected to total $309.3 million to $441.2 million. Sotheby’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. Pre-sale estimates don’t include the buyer’s premium.

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Joe Mysak on books.