A 1976 triptych by Francis Bacon brought $86.3 million on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s, becoming the most expensive work of contemporary art ever sold at auction and a retort to doomsayers who had predicted that the art market would falter seriously this season because of broad economic anxieties.
“Recession? What recession?” Barbara Gladstone, a Chelsea dealer, said jokingly as she was leaving the salesroom.
Although the sale had top-quality art and dealers predicted it would be a success, it went well beyond even the auction house’s expectations, bringing in $362 million, above the sale’s high $356 million estimate. Only 10 of the 83 works failed to sell, and 18 artist records were set for names ranging from Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni to Tom Wesselmann and Takashi Murakami.
By far the most exciting moment of the evening was when “Triptych,” Mr. Bacon’s comment on his own angst — a vast (each of the three panels measures about 6 ½ feet by 5 feet) and densely painted allegorical painting came up for sale. Three telephone bidders went for the painting, which was being sold by the Moueix family, producers of Château Pétrus wines. Hailing the painting as “a landmark of the 20th-century canon,” Sotheby’s had estimated it would sell for $70 million.
(Final prices include the commission paid to Sotheby’s: 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the next $20,000 to $500,000 and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Two monochrome works by the artist Yves Klein fetched giant prices. Offered from the collection of Walther Lauffs, a German industrialist who died in 1981, and his wife, Helga, “MG9” (1962), a gold leaf on panel, proved wildly popular. It carried an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, but Philippe Ségalot, a Manhattan dealer, bought the painting for $23.5 million. Mr. Ségalot, who spoke French on a cellphone as he bid, also bought “IKB1,” a 1960 deep blue canvas that had been expected to bring $5 million to $7 million but fetched $17.4 million. (As soon as the hammer fell on both paintings, speculation started spreading through the salesroom that Mr. Ségalot was bidding for François Pinault, the luxury goods magnate and owner of Christie’s, but Mr. Ségalot declined to comment on the buyer for whom he was bidding.)
Abstract images have been strong sellers in general this week. Gerhard Richter’s “Abstract Picture” from 1990, a dreamy canvas of yellows, violets, blues and orange, went for $15.1 million, far above its $5 million to $7 million estimate. The buyer was yet another mystery telephone bidder.
Marianne Boesky, who for years had represented Mr. Murakami before he jumped to the powerhouse Gagosian Gallery two years ago, was selling one of the artist’s outrageous sculptures, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” another cast of which is on view as part of the artist’s retrospective that opened last month at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The sculpture of the naked cowboy brought another record price, selling to a telephone bidder for $15.1 million, nearly four times its $4 million high estimate.
Mr. Murakami, wearing his signature baggy blue jeans and his hair in a ponytail, was standing in the back of the salesroom on Wednesday night. People in the audience believed he spent $1.1 million for a 2001 sculpture by the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, “Light My Fire,” a sculpture of a child on a tree stump holding a flame.
Three works by the art world titan Robert Rauschenberg were on offer Wednesday night, and his death this week at 82 prompted avid speculation on how they would fare. Historically, auction prices tend to dip immediately after an artist dies in anticipation that long-withheld works will flood the market.
But “Overdrive,” a 1963 silkscreen collage incorporating images of a bird, a stop sign, a one-way street sign and other objects, made yet another record price, bringing $14.6 million. Sotheby’s had thought it would make $10 million to $15 million.
The evening had one particularly pricey bump: “Orange, Red, Yellow,” an abstract Rothko in dense tones from 1956, was expected to fetch $35 million. It was being sold by Heinz Eppler, a philanthropist and collector from New York and Palm Beach, Calif. There were no bids for the painting, which failed to sell. A small triangle by the lot number indicated that Sotheby’s had a financial interest in the painting. Before the sale, some contemporary-art dealers said they had heard that Sotheby’s had purchased it in partnership with Robert Mnuchin, a Manhattan dealer. Perhaps there were too many red Rothkos for sale this week. On Tuesday night at Christie’s, a Rothko in reds and yellows went for $50.4 million, a highlight of that sale.
But Pop Art was still had its day. A Tom Wesselmann, “Great American Nude No. 48,” a 1963 roomlike assemblage that includes a radiator and window illumination, brought another record price, selling for $10.6 million, above its $8 million high estimate. (Another Wesselmann, “Smoker #9, 1973,” a painting in the shape of a woman’s red lips inhaling smoke, set a record for the artist’s work at auction on Tuesday night at Christie’s, going for $6.7 million.
Jose Mugrabi, the Manhattan dealer, bought Warhol’s “Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times)” from 1986 for $9.5 million. Measuring 6 feet by 35 feet, it presents a black grid with the face of Christ outlined in yellow. It seemed like a good price considering the low estimate was $10 million.
Peter Brant, the newsprint magnate was a big seller last night. One of Richard Prince’s early supporters he was parting with “Millionaire Nurse,” from 2002. one of the artist’s paintings inspired by the covers of erotic pulp fiction from the 1940s. In this painting, his nurse is wearing a white surgical mask. While it had been estimated to sell for $3.5 million to $4.5 million, five bidders went for the work which ended up selling for $4.2 million or $4.7 million including Sotheby’s fees. (On Tuesday night, Christie’s auctioned a Prince nurse painting from the same year for a record $7.3 million.) Even more subtle canvases had their appeal. “Achrome,” a sensual, layered white canvas by Piero Manzoni, also brought a record price. Franck Giraud, Mr. Ségalot’s partner, beat out five bidders to buy the painting for $10.1 million, well above its $6.5 million estimate.
After the sale, as the crowds were milling around talking about the evening, everyone seemed stunned by the large sums of money that were spent. “I don’t understand why it did so well if the economy was mediocre,” said Mr. Mugrabi. “Maybe people feel safer with art.”