$71 mln Warhol leads Christie's record art sale

NEW YORK Thu May 17, 2007 12:51am EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Post-war art broke the $70 million mark for a second straight night on Wednesday as Christie's sold a record-smashing $385 million worth of contemporary art, the second-highest total for any auction in history.

This time it was Andy Warhol's "Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)" from the pop artist's Death and Disaster series, which soared to $71.72 million.

That was just shy of the $72.84 million fetched by a Mark Rothko at Sotheby's on Tuesday night, which shattered the record for post-war art at auction.

The $385 million Christie's total, including commission, was the best result for any contemporary/post-war auction worldwide, as newer works solidified their position at the forefront of the art market boom.

Records fell for more than half of the 50 artists represented, including Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter and Donald Judd, in addition to Warhol whose previous top price of $17.4 million for "Mao" was achieved only last fall.

The sale beat Christie's most optimistic expectations by some $80 million, while only four of 78 works on offer failed to sell.

"It was one of the most remarkable sales I've ever seen," said Christie's honorary chairman Christopher Burge, who also served as auctioneer.

"The market wasn't just hungry, it was ravenous."

Prices were strong and bidding fierce "in every section of the market, from all parts of the world," Burge added.

Marc Porter, president of Christie's Americas, said the phenomenal results of the past two weeks showed confidence in both the art market and the economy.

"The art market is strong at all levels, whether it's a $20,000 or a $5 million work," he told Reuters.

"There's been a seismic shift in the last two or three years, and art is seen as an appropriate investment for stores of capital," Porter said. "Buying and consumption are based on wealth, and people just feel very confident."

The Christie's sale was heavily laden with Warhols, with "Green Car Crash" and 1962's "Lemon Marilyn" together accounting for some $100 million.

The latter work, of seminal Warhol subject Marilyn Monroe, had remained in the same hands since the year of its creation.

Christie's officials said that sellers of such iconic works were drawn to the market by the strong prices of recent seasons. Collectors of post-war works were also maturing and more inclined to sell top works during their lifetimes rather than leaving them for estate sales, they noted.

"There's a new enthusiasm and energy coming into the contemporary market," said Amy Cappellazzo, the international co-head for contemporary art. "Why shouldn't our numbers look like the numbers for the top Impressionist works?"

By all evidence, collectors agree.

Bidders paid $26.9 million for an untitled Rothko from 1954 and $22.44 million for another from 1961, both exceeding their high estimates.

Two more Warhols -- "Self Portrait" and "Four Foot Flowers" -- also beat their high pre-sale estimates, selling for $8.2 million and just under $8 million respectively.

Other artists whose work set new auction records included Damien Hirst, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn, Arshile Gorky and John Baldessari.

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