NEW YORK — A painting by Andy Warhol, "200 One Dollar Bills," brought the equivalent of 43.8 million dollar bills at auction, more than three times its highest presale estimate of $12 million.
The piece, one of Warhol's first silk-screen paintings, sold at Sotheby's on Wednesday evening. The auction house did not reveal the names of the buyer and seller.
Bidding for the seminal work was spirited and fast. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer opened bidding at $6 million, which was immediately doubled. Five more people in the room jumped in, competing until a phone bidder was declared the winner.
The current record for a Warhol is $71.7 million for "Green Car Crash, sold at Christie's in 2007.
Christie's evening sale of postwar and contemporary art totaled $74.1 million on Tuesday, within its presale estimate of $66.9 million to $94 million. But only one work sold for more than $10 million – a work by Scottish artist Peter Doig. A Jean-Michel Basquiat, meanwhile, failed to find a buyer.
And while prices were stronger than a year ago, art experts hesitated to say that the art market had conclusively turned around.
"It takes time for the confidence to build up, and Christie's sale "greased the wheels for Sotheby's," said Madison Avenue art dealer and adviser Lucy Mitchell-Innes.
"It's a good sign," said Mitchell-Innes, who is president of the Art Dealers Association. "I'd like to see this over another sale cycle of art fairs and another cycle of auctions" before saying that the art market has turned the corner.
"There will be a day of reckoning, but I certainly don't know when," said internationally known art dealer Richard Feigen. "I don't think it says anything about the economy, any more than does the Dow Jones."
But Baird Ryan of Art Capital Group, an independent art market financier, said the Warhol sale clearly showed "there is an audience for fine art."
The art market "has stabilized and shows signs of consolidation without further erosion. From here it can grow again at one point," he said.
"There is more money on the sidelines, and the patient players will ultimately contribute significantly to the art market's recovery," Ryan added. Whether that signals a conclusive turnaround will not be known until the spring auctions, he said.
Executed in 1962, "200 One Dollar Bills" was once owned by taxi tycoon Robert C. Scull, who purchased it directly from Warhol's dealer. The current owner bought it in 1986 for $385,000.
It was the highest price fetched at the Contemporary Art sale, which totaled $134.4 million, well above the high presale total of $97.7 million.
Other Warhol paintings at Sotheby's also drew strong prices.
His 1965 "Self-Portrait," which the artist gave to Cathy Naso, a receptionist who worked at his Factory, sold for $6.1 million. It had been estimated to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million.
Naso, who attended the auction, was 19 years old when Warhol gave her the painting inscribed to her. She displayed it briefly and then stored it in a closet, where it remained until this year.
"I think I am dreaming," Naso said. "Andy has made me famous for 15 minutes and I've come to realize that 15 minutes of fame is more than enough."
An untitled 1962 Warhol drawing of a roll of dollar bills belonging to New York collector Leonard Newman sold for $4.2 million, above its $2.5 million to $3.5 million presale estimate.
Sotheby's attributed the strong bidding, coming after last year's sagging auction prices amid a global financial downturn, to the works' stellar provenance, condition and collectors' desire for high quality work by well-known artists.
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