UPDATE 1-Christie's contemporary sale is biggest auction in history

Thu May 16, 2013 12:14am EDT

(Adds quotes, details, results)

By Chris Michaud

NEW YORK May 15 (Reuters) - The spring auctions ended on a record-shattering high on Wednesday as Christie's contemporary art sale achieved the highest total - $495 million - in the history of art auctions.

Artists' records fell one after another, led by Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose works each soared to anywhere from about $49 million to $58 million.

Only four of the 70 lots on offer, or 6 percent, went unsold as the auction took in a whopping $495,021,500 including commission, easily beating even the high pre-sale estimate of just over $400 million.

"We are in a new era of the art market," said Jussi Pylkkanen, president and chairman of Christie's Europe, who also served as auctioneer. "There is global competition that we have never seen in the art world before."

The record-breaking sale's top lot was Pollock's "Number 19, 1948," one of the artist's seminal drip paintings, which fetched $58.4 million, or nearly twice the pre-sale estimate.

Lichtenstein's "Woman with Flowered Hat," which was expected to sell in excess of $30 million, instead soared to $56.1 million, while Basquiat's "Dustheads" went for $48.8 million.

All three works set new records for the blue-chip artists, with Basquiat's nearly doubling the old mark.

Officials said the stellar result was driven by the top-quality individual works on offer and important private collections, notably the assemblage of the late singer Andy Williams.

"We've reached a stage where it's very difficult to gauge prices" for top works by top artists, said Pylkkanen, owing in part to the growing interest in art by the super-rich.

But most every work in the sale, including those in the lower and middle ranges, ended up exceeding the high estimate. Christie's officials were seemingly amazed by the number of collectors who were in the position of being able to bid for art works in excess of $20 million.

Fifteen artists among some 40 represented set new records, including Piero Manzoni, Richard Serra, Philip Guston and Joseph Cornell, whose "Magic Soap Bubble Set" box construction sold for more than $4.7 million, many times the estimate of about $600,000.

Steven Murphy, CEO of Christie's International, said that new collectors were helping drive the boom.

"Twenty-five percent of our buyers last year were new to Christie's," he told Reuters. "And four or five of the key lots tonight went to people who have never bought here before."

Among other highlights, Guston's "To Fellini" sold for $25.9 million, or more than double the estimate of about $10 million, and Lichtenstein's "Nude with Yellow Flower" yielded $23.6 million, far exceeding the $16 million high estimate.

An untitled work by Mark Rothko from 1958 was the sale's fourth-most expensive work, coming in at $27 million after an estimate of $15 million to $20 million.

Works by Jeff Koons and Franz Kline were among the few to go unsold, and a Francis Bacon painting estimated at up to $25 million was withdrawn at the 11th hour, after another Bacon at rival Sotheby's on Tuesday failed to draw interest. (Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Peter Cooney and Xavier Briand)

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