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May 16, 2007 

Is $1,000,000 the new $100,000? It certainly seemed that way at Sotheby's New York evening sale of contemporary art on May 15, 2007, which saw 41 of the 74 lots sell for over $1 million. The auction total of $254.9 million is a new record for any single sale of contemporary art. Of the 74 lots, 65 found buyers, or almost 88 percent. Prices given here include the auction-house premium of 20 percent on the first $500,000 and 12 percent on the remainder.

The top lot was Mark Rothko's White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) (1950), which Sotheby's had estimated to sell for $40 million (or more). As the picture's 91-year-old consignor, David Rockefeller, looked on from a Sotheby's skybox -- he had bought the painting for $10,000 from dealer Sidney Janis in 1961 -- auctioneer Tobias Meyer began the bidding at $33 million, quickly running the price up in million-dollar jumps.

Three phone bidders fought it out, and Meyer hammered the painting down at $65 million, or $72,840,000 with premium, a new auction record for the artist. Oddly, the next three lots quickly passed, as if the stupendous price had sucked the energy (or the money) out of the room?

The sale had three other lots that sold for over $10 million. Francis Bacon's Study after Pope Innocent X (1962), a pivotal work in the artist's emblematic "Pope" series, went to a phone bidder for $52,680,000, prompting some applause from the crowd.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's untitled 1981 graffiti painting of a figure with raised arms, being sold by the Israel Museum to help endow a Eugene and Barbara Schwartz Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund, sold for $14,680,000 to an anonymous U.S. dealer, well above the presale high estimate of $8 million.

And Robert Rauschenberg's Photograph, a fairly severe work from 1959 that was included in the recent touring museum show of the artist's "Combine Paintings," sold for $10,680,000 (est. $10 million-$15 million). The buyer, according to observers in the room, was private dealer Abigail Asher.

All three pictures set auction records for the artists. In all, the sale set new records for 15 artists, including Cecily Brown ($1,104,000), Glenn Brown ($734,000), Jim Hodges ($689,600), John Baldessari ($992,000), Richard Prince ($2,504,000), Hans Hofmann ($2,056,000), David Park ($1,160,000), Tom Wesselmann ($5,864,000), Morris Louis ($1,832,000), Dan Flavin ($1,384,000) and Daniel Richter ($824,000).

The auction included three paintings by Jackson Pollock, and strangely, none of them sold. Perhaps the lots were affected by some miasma of doubt, occasioned by that controversial trove of dubious drip paintings. In any case, the presale estimate of all three Pollocks together totaled $33,500,000-$45,500,000, which almost seems like a lot.

Two of the Pollocks carried guarantees (usually meaning that the house has promised the consignor a handsome sum in order to obtain the property for sale), and Sotheby's had an ownership interest in the third. After the auction, Meyer professed to be unbothered by the outcome, and his nonchalance makes sense in a market where it seems like everything sells, if not now, then later.

Other unsold lots included Richter's 1967 Zwei Spanische Akte (est. $9 million-$11 million) and John Currin's 1994 Nude (est. $800,000-$1,200,000). Hmmm.

The auction theater had an especially good audience. Sotheby's former chairman A. Alfred Taubman was in the house, sitting on the north aisle in the third row, his face split by a big grin. Calvin Klein was in attendance, as were collector Peter Brant and his wife, Stephanie Seymour.

In the bidding wars, it's easy to root for the celebrity dealers in the room rather than the anonymous (and often unstoppable) telephones. Winning bidders at Sotheby's last night included SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who snagged Roy Lichtenstein's cheerful Girl in Mirror (1965, one of an edition of eight), for $4,072,000. Deitch also got Gerhard Richter's Waldstück (1987), a soft-focus forest scene of birches and pines, for $3,064,000.

Larry Gagosian bought the record-setting Lichtenstein Still Life with Green Vase (1972), one of several works from the estate of Pop art collector Barbara Jacobson, for $4,296,000. Dominique Levy of L&M Arts took home Gerhard Richter's Wolken (Rosa) (1970), a romantic triptych of pink and gray clouds, for $2,448,000.

And Daniela Luxembourg purchased the 101 x 158 in. Morris Louis "Unfurled," Beta Delta (1961), for $1,832,000, as well as the similarly colorful Frank Stella "Concentric Squares" painting from 1974, Jacques le Fataliste, for $1,832,000.

For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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