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by Meredith Mendelsohn
|Contemporary art buyers just can't get enough, or spend enough. At Sotheby's contemporary art sale on the evening of May 17, auction records were broken for 13 artists, ranging from Abstract Expressionist icons to PoMo photographers of the 1980s and '90s.
Which is not to say that buyers didn't keep a tight grip on their cash. Bidding was often slow and tedious, however steady. The auction featured 70 works dating from 1945 to the present, and totaled $46 million, surpassing its presale estimate of $41 million. Only three lots went unsold.
Modern painting was hot all night, topped by Sotheby's shining star, Mark Rothko's Yellow Over Purple (1956), which sold for a record-breaking $14.3 million (est. $7 million to $9 million). Five bidders fought over the glowing, velveteen orange, red and yellow work from the collection of the Morton G. Neumann family, considerably upping the price past the artist's previous record of $11 million, set at Sotheby's last November. Rumor had it that the infamous Hubert Neumann, heir to the family fortune, can finally settle his tax debt. Bidders also set new records for Yves Klein ($2,095,750), Clyfford Still ($1,710,750) and Brice Marden ($1,545,750).
The photography market keeps getting stronger, as confirmed by record prices paid for Charles Ray ($368,750), Cindy Sherman ($269,750), Richard Prince ($269,000) and Andreas Gursky ($181,750). The Prince and the Sherman works came from the collection of New Jersey Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, who also had a Warhol and a Twombly on the block.
Fiesty photo fans also vied for John Baldessari's series of nine pictures of garlic bulbs, which sold for $203,750, setting a record for the artist's photographs. Auctioneer Tobias Meier enviously noted after the sale that today's photography collectors were largely younger than he (in their 30s) -- though most of the bidders were dealers.
Sculpture had its highs, too, with still more record prices paid for Martin Puryear ($489,750), Donald Judd ($445,750) and Carl Andre ($401,750). Works by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, George Segal, Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman all exceeded their presale estimates, and Martin Kippenberger set a record for his sculpture with Under the Eiffel Tower in Tokyo Lauwarm, a sculpted wood table stacked with photos, which sold for an amazing $64,000.
As at Christie's on May 16, the sale was heavy on the Warhols, featuring five in total. The costliest was the $2.7-million large-scale silkscreen showing overlapping images of Natalie Wood, from the collection of Condé Nast honcho S.I. Newhouse Jr., which sold for nearly twice its estimate.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.