NEW YORK - A sunset-colored painting by Mark Rothko became the world's most expensive contemporary art work Tuesday when it fetched $86.9 million in a stunningly lucrative auction at Christie's in New York.
"Orange, red, yellow" was as hot on the Christie's block as the colors on the bold, large-scale abstract canvas. A thicket of hands shot up to catch the attention of auctioneer Christopher Burge, bids leaping in increments of a million, sometimes two million dollars.
The hammer finally fell at a hair under $87 million, including final commission, breaking both the previous record for Rothko's most expensive work of $72.84 million and the record for any contemporary work of art at auction, Christie's said.
Collectors were in full cry all evening, knocking 14 artists' records down and repeatedly meeting or exceeding pre-sale high estimates.
Total takings of $388.5 million were the highest ever for a contemporary art auction, a record last set in 2007, Christie's said.
Among the other stars was the spectacular "FC1" by Yves Klein, which depicts the X-ray-like outlines of two nude models captured on canvas through a mixture of paint, water and flames.
It had been estimated to fetch up to $40 million. Although the hammer came down at the relatively flat $36.5 million, including commission, that smashed Klein's previous $23.6 million record.
One of the most breathless bidding wars was for Gerhard Richter's "Abstraktes Bild," which sold for $21.8 million, easily beyond the $18 million high estimate, and also a record for the artist.
Burge was at his best, cajoling, humoring and squeezing the super-wealthy players for every spare million.
"Absolutely not," he scoffed, when one bidder suggested a modest increase of just $50,000.
"No more messing around now," he chided playfully, as the price headed north from $16 million.
One of the most original, if fragile, works of the night, a huge candle in the form of an over-sized wax sculpture of art collector Peter Brant, kicked off the night with a winning bid of $1.3 million, beating the pre-sale high estimate.
The sculpture is designed to be lit and allowed to melt. But the buyer needn't worry: included in the price is the right to order more of the giant candles from the same mold.
The art world has certainly recovered from its own meltdown during the 2008 financial markets crash.
Last week, the only privately owned version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" -- one of the most recognizable paintings in history -- set an overall world record for any work sold at public auction when it fetched $119.9 million at Sotheby's in New York.
Sotheby's holds its rival contemporary auction on Wednesday.
Highlights there will include Pop Art master Roy Lichtenstein's "Sleeping Girl," estimated at $30 million to $40 million.
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