Sotheby’s Hauls in $341.9 M. at Contemporary Auction, with SFMOMA’s Rothko Selling for $50.1 M. -ARTnews

Sotheby's Hauls in $341.9 M. at Contemporary Auction, with SFMOMA's Rothko Selling for $50.1 M. -ARTnews

Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head, 1952, sold for $50.4 million.


Even as a U.S.–China trade war rages and the stock market continues through a volatile stretch, the contemporary art market is continuing to show unrelenting strength, as evidenced by a season-ending auction at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday evening that brought in $341.9. million.

That tally edged toward the high side of pre-sale expectations of $244.6 million to $351.6 million. (Estimates do not include the buyer’s premium, and the hammer total was $291.6 million.)

Only seven of the 63 lots offered failed to sell, for a crisp buy-in rate by lot of 11 percent.

The solid result, which ranks as the 11th-most-expensive contemporary art evening sale in history, easily eclipsed last May’s $283.2 million total for 46 lots sold, which was led by Jackson Pollock’s Number 32, 1949 selling for $34.1 million.

Fifty-three of the 56 lots that sold made over $1 million dollars; of those, eight exceeded $10 million, and two hurdled the $50 million mark.

More impressively, seven artist records were set.

In terms of pre-sale financing of certain lots, 18 had so-called irrevocable bids, a form of third-party backing that entitles the funder to a financing fee, and one had a house guarantee. In both scenarios, the seller is assured of a minimum price no matter what occurs in the salesroom.

Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1960, sold for $50.1 million.


All prices include the hammer plus the buyer’s premium, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer up to and including $400,000, 20 percent of any amount above that, up to and including $4 million, and 13.9 percent of anything higher. Currently, Sotheby’s charges the highest buyer’s premium in the industry.

The evening began on an upbeat note, with Robert Colescott’s multi-figured and action-packed scene, Garden Spot, from October 1989, drawing a posse of bidders. It cruised to $704,000 (est. $200,000–$300,000).

Fellow California painter Wayne Thiebaud came next with a page-sized 1962 oil painting, Four Pinball Machines (Study), which sold to the telephone for $3.62 million (est. $2 million–$3 million). It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 2011 for $3.44 million.

Still early in the sale, a mural-scaled Julie Mehretu abstraction bearing a kind of cinematic matrix of voluminous marks in ink and acrylic on canvas sold to another telephone bidder for $3.02 million (est. $2.5 million–$3.5 million).

Large-scale figurative painting appeared throughout the evening. Cecily Brown’s richly colored and decidedly sensual Confessions of a Window Cleaner (2000–01) realized $3.62 million (est. $3 million–$4 million), and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s single-figure No Words of Gratitude (2012) brought an estimate-busting $680,000 (est. $250,000–$350,000.) The Brown last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2006 for $632,000.

Willem De Kooning’s Untitled X, 1975, sold for $12.6 million.


In that same figurative vein, Dana Schutz’s massive, color-drenched, and deceptively bucolic composition, Civil Planning (2004), attracted another large group of bidders, and went to another telephone bidder, for a record $2.42 million. (est. $300,000–$400,000). The Schutz was backed by an irrevocable bid.

Before today, the her high mark was $795,000; right before the Sotheby’s sale, not far away in Manhattan, Phillips sold her Signing (2009) for a record $980,000, a milestone that would only last for a matter of moments.

A standout double-portrait by Barkley L. Hendricks, Yocks (1975), of two men in long leather jackets and matching hats, hit a record-busting $3.74 million (est. $900,000–$1.2 million). It last sold at a Sotheby’s New York day sale in May 2017 for $942,500, meaning the seller got quite a payday.

In the big-ticket arena, Francis Bacon’s ferocious, open-mouthed papal figure, Study for a Head (1952), strongly evocative of Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), telegraphs an image that radiates the artist’s angst-filled oeuvre with mesmerizing appeal.

Four telephones vied for the stunning portrait until New York dealer Chris Eykyn entered the fray at $40 million and persevered to win it at the top-lot price of $50.4 million. (est. $20 million–$30 million). Judging by the speed of Eykyn’s incremental bidding, his client was willing to go higher.

Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle, 1960, sold for $11.7 million.


Buttonholed for a moment as he left the packed York Avenue salesroom, he called the work “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The picture hails from the Seattle collection of Richard Lang and Jane Lang Davis, who acquired it from Acquavella Galleries in 1975, when the top auction price for Bacon was below $200,000. It now ranks as the seventh-most-expensive Bacon to sell at auction, and given its relatively small scale of 26 by 22 inches, it is an especially huge…

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