Rothko, Lichtenstein Lead Sotheby’s $380 Million New York Sale

“Bidding! Bidding! Bidding!”

The bids for Mark Bradford’s 2015 abstract painting flew in from every corner of the packed salesroom as Sotheby’s evening contemporary art auction got off to a spirited start.

By the time the sale ended two hours later on Tuesday, the auctioneer sold $379.7 million worth of art, the second-highest total for Sotheby’s in the category. The tally in New York, a 4 percent increase from May 2014, was within the presale estimate of $315.1 million to $411.2 million.

Seven artist records were set, including those for Bradford, Sigmar Polke, Mark Grotjahn and Helen Frankenthaler. Four of those records came in the first 40 minutes of the auction.

“It was a very explosive start,” said Harry Blain, director of Blain Southern gallery in London. “They constructed the sale really well. It had good rhythm and great energy.”

Sotheby’s sale came on the heels of Christie’s $705.9 million curated auction on May 11 in which art spanned the entire 20th century. Sotheby’s auction focused on postwar and contemporary art.

Two pieces at Christie’s sold for more than $140 million: Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘‘O’’),” fetched $179.4 million, the most expensive artwork at auction. Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture of a pointing man was purchased for $141.3 million. Most of the top lots went to telephone bidders.

Many Bids

Although the Sotheby’s auction didn’t have such big prices, “it was a sale people could participate in,” said Paul Gray, director of Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and New York.

The auction started with Bradford’s 8-foot-tall canvas, “Smear,” that surged to $4.4 million from the opening bid of $200,000. The bids came in too fast to count. It was one of eight works donated by artists to benefit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The group tallied $15.9 million for the museum.

Another MOCA lot, Grotjahn’s thickly layered 2011 painting, “Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18),” fetched $6.5 million, more than doubling its presale high estimate of $3 million.

Christopher Wool’s 1990 white aluminum canvas, spelling “Riot” in big chunky black letters, fetched $29.9 million, surpassing the presale target of $12 million to $18 million. It was a record for the artist.

Steamy Painting

Polke’s steamy 1967 “Dschungel (Jungle)” painting fetched $27.1 million, surpassing the estimated target of $20 million and setting a record for the late German artist. The consigner bought the work for $9.2 million at Sotheby’s in 2011 and the price had been the artist’s record until the new one on Tuesday night.

Andy Warhol’s 1981“Superman” painting took off with seven bidders chasing it. The price of $14.4 million exceeded the presale high estimate of $8 million. The work was one of five Warhols in the sale, all of which found buyers.

“It was really a rush for art,” said Alexander Rotter, co-head of Sotheby’s worldwide contemporary art department. “The bids were coming from the sides, the skyboxes and the seats.”

Rothko, Lichtenstein

The two top lots, which had been guaranteed, attracted more muted bidding. An 8-foot-tall yellow and blue Mark Rothko painting that sold for $46.5 million to a telephone client of Isabelle Paagman, Sotheby’s European head of private sales who outbid Patti Wong, Sotheby’s chairman of Asia.

The 1954 painting, which was once owned by American socialite Rachel “Bunny’ Mellon, was estimated to fetch $40 million to $60 million. It was sold by Malaysia’s Low family, which has investments and business interests around the world, according to people familiar with the matter.

Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book-style painting ‘‘The Ring (Engagement)” sold for $41.7 million to a client of Wong. Stefan Edlis, a Chicago-based collector who recently gifted 42 artworks worth at least $400 million to the Art Institute of Chicago, was the seller of the 1962 painting. Edlis, who was in the audience Tuesday night, bought it in 1997 for $2.2 million. Sotheby’s estimated the work, which shows a ring being placed on a finger, at about $50 million.

“I’m thrilled,” Tad Smith, Sotheby’s chief executive officer who took over on March 31, said about the results after the auction. “How can I be otherwise?”

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