May 14, 2015 / 5:03 PM / 2 years ago

An $82 million Rothko leads Christie's $659 million contemporary art sale

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mark Rothko's muted-hued canvas "No. 10" soared to $81.9 million on Wednesday, leading Christie's marathon sale of post-war and contemporary art, which took in $658.5 million and set new records for several major artists.

The sale of 82 works, or about 25 percent more than usual, approached its high pre-sale estimate of $687 million, and saw just 12 percent of its offerings left unsold.

It was the week's second big result for the auction house, following Monday's special sale which set new records for the highest prices paid for a single work of art, as well as for any sculpture.

The three top lots each sold for more than $50 million, with three others fetching more than $35 million. New records were set for Robert Ryman and Robert Rauschenberg.

"What we're seeing is a very knowledgeable market, and in some cases with buyers who have had a very quick education," said Brett Gorvy, Christie's' head of post-war and contemporary art.

Officials at both Christie's and rival Sotheby's concur that the recent art boom has been driven at least in part by deep-pocketed clients who have been collecting for only a few years.

So it might have been surprising that Rothko's muted, somber-toned work, which carried a pre-sale estimate of $45 million, emerged the star.

With the top auction price of the past two weeks, apart from Monday's record setters, it also fell just short of Rothko's record.

But Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's global president who was also auctioneer, said that the "quiet, intellectual work" from 1958 appealed strongly to collectors who are "connoisseurs of these types of American pictures from this period."

The sale's top lots, he added, appealed mostly to established collectors, rather than the newer clients auction officials have pointed to as having driven recent sales.

Other highlights included Warhol's "Colored Mona Lisa" and Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Resting," which each fetched $56.2 million and beat their estimates. The Freud also broke the artist's auction record by more than $22 million.

Francis Bacon's "Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" sold for $47.8 million, in line with its estimate, while an untitled Cy Twombley work went for $42.7 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "The Field Next to the Other Road" also fared well, selling for $37.1 million, beating the high estimate.

The auctions wrap up on Thursday with Christie's sale of Impressionist and modern art.

Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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