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Christie's art auction makes nearly half a billion dollars

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.

AFP and Reuters, Thursday 16 May 2013
Dustheads" by Jean-Michel Basquiat on display at Christie
Dustheads" by Jean-Michel Basquiat on display at Christie's in New York. (Photo: AFP)
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A blockbuster auction of Contemporary art in New York, including a record $58.4 million for a Jackson Pollock drip painting, fetched nearly half a billion dollars -- the biggest haul ever at an art auction.

Christie's said Wednesday's sale raised a "staggering" total of $495,021,500, with 94 percent of lots finding buyers. Nine of the works sold went for more than $10 million and 23 for more than $5 million.

It wasn't just the most successful auction of Contemporary art at Christie's, but the biggest haul from an art auction anywhere at all, the auction house said.

It was "the highest total in auction history," Brett Gorvy, head of post-war and Contemporary art, said. "The remarkable bidding and record prices set reflect a new era in the art market, wherein seasoned collectors and new bidders compete at the highest level within a global market."

Leading the frenzied charge were the Pollock and a work by one-time graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which set another record at $48.8 million.

Pollock's "Number 19, 1948", executed in his iconic drip-paint style with a shimmering mixture of silver, black, white, red and green, had been expected to sell for between $25 million and $35 million.

But it shot up to set a new auction high for the artist. The previous top auction price for a Pollock had been $40.4 million last year, although his paintings are said to have sold for far more in unconfirmed private deals.

Christie's called the painting the fruit of "a legendary three-year burst of creativity between 1947 and 1950 that completely revolutionized American painting and reshaped the history of twentieth century art."

The exuberant sale at Christie's came a day after rival Sotheby's sold Barnett Newman's "Onement VI" for $43.84 million and a Gerhard Richter photo-style painting called "Domplatz, Mailand" for $37.1 million -- the highest auction price for any living artist.

Christie's Manhattan sale also saw Basquiat's "Dustheads" sail past its $25 million to $35 million pre-sale estimate to the highest auction price ever for the artist, who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose in New York, aged just 27.

The painting depicts two grimacing, brightly colored figures against a black background and "demonstrates Basquiat's unique ability to combine raw, unabashed expressive emotion whilst displaying a draughtmanship that was unrivalled in modern painting," Christie's said.

The previous auction high for the street artist turned superstar had been $26.4 million last year.

The other mega sale of the evening -- yet again setting an auction record for the artist -- was "Woman with flowered hat" by Pop Art master Roy Lichtenstein, going for $56.1 million.

The work is unusual for Lichtenstein, who is best known for comic-strip style scenes, but this time used his meticulous style to parody the Cubism of Picasso. The previous auction record for a Lichtenstein was $44.9 million, also last year.

Among the few losers in Wednesday's sale were Francis Bacon, whose "Study for portrait", estimated at $18 million to $25 million failed to find a buyer. Another work by Bacon, "Study for Portrait of P.L.", had been expected to sell for up to $40 million on Tuesday at Sotheby's, but also flopped.

Mark Rothko's "Unititled (black on maroon)" fetched $27 million, surpassing the pre-sale high estimate of $20 million, and Richter's "Abstraktes bild, Dunkel", estimated at $18 million, fetched just under $22 million.

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.

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