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New York City spring art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's abound in records
The three panels of Francis Bacon's "Triptych, 1976." The painting, which sold in May 2008 for $86,281,000 is one of eight works that have sold for $80 million or more at auction. AP Photo/Sotheby's.

By: Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP).- The city's spring art auction season was red hot.

The frenzy began with Edvard Munch's "The Scream" on May 2, when a phone bidder at Sotheby's plunked down nearly $120 million for the iconic image, earning it the title of most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

Then, Mark Rothko's "Orange, Red, Yellow" stole the record for any contemporary artwork at auction when it sold for nearly $87 million at Christie's on Tuesday.

But it didn't stop there. Artist records also were shattered at the two auction houses for works by Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and others.

The art market remains one of the few flourishing during a difficult economic period. Among the reasons: an expanding global market that includes buyers from Asia, the Middle East and South America, a strong desire by the most knowledgeable collectors to own a top piece by the most recognized artists in the world and the view that art is a sound investment.

"People feel very safe about buying art," said Nicolai Frahm, a partner with the London-based Frahm Ltd. "You have a huge amount of new buyers coming to the market. If you have money, you want to be a part of buying art. People almost are considered imbeciles if they have money and they're not buying."

Christie's took in a record $616 million during the two-week-long auctions of impressionist, modern and contemporary art. Its evening contemporary art sale alone totaled $388.5 million, a record for any auction in that category. Sotheby's sales total was nearly $704 million. Its Wednesday sale of the Bacon, Lichtenstein, Warhol and other seminal works brought in $330.6 million.

All the prices include buyer's premiums.

None of the buyers has been publicly identified, but bidders included collectors from China, Russia, South America, the Middle East, Europe and Australia.

Both auction houses offered works from famous collections — Philadelphia philanthropist and art patron David Pincus at Christie's and New York financier Theodore Forstmann at Sotheby's — and pieces that had been absent from the marketplace for decades.

"The reason for these record-breaking sales is, quite simply, the quality of the material," said Michael Frahm, a contemporary art adviser and Nicolai Frahm's brother and partner. "The auction houses have managed to find rare pieces by the most renowned artists."

The sales "demonstrated the tremendous growth in demand for high-quality works and how the top end of the market is moving away from the rest to reach new levels, higher than we have ever witnessed before," he said.

They included a silver silkscreen image of Elvis Presley by Warhol that fetched $37 million, Lichtenstein's comic book-inspired "Sleeping Girl" for $44.8 million and 1 ton of handmade porcelain "Sunflower Seeds" by Weiwei, which brought $782,500.

The annual spring auction season was the strongest since the recession hit in 2008.

Experts said that mid-range works of art also performed well but that it was artworks at the top end that accounted for the robust market.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, said the top of the market performed well because of the global demand for masterpieces.

Patricia Berman, chair of the art department at Wellesley College and a director of the Edvard Munch Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, said, "This narrow sector of the art market is robust because of the record number of millionaires and billionaires worldwide, because of the uncertainty of other investment pathways and because of the increasing glamour and cachet of the ownership of contemporary art among newer investors."

Nicolai Frahm called the sale of the Rothko painting for nearly $87 million "amazing" because "that's not so far away from the most iconic image ('The Scream') ever created in art."

Even the most whimsical pieces at the sales couldn't quell buyers' enthusiasm.

Christie's catalog entry for a life-size wax likeness of magazine publisher Peter Brant by the artist Urs Fischer said the artwork had 14 wicks that "when lit, turn 'Untitled (Standing)' into a giant candle that slowly melts to the floor."

It was a move that hopefully was not contemplated by the buyer, who paid a record $1.3 million for it.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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