NEW YORK (Reuters) - The spring art auctions wrapped up a fortnight of robust results on Wednesday as Sotheby's sold an impressive $190 million in post-war and contemporary art. Works by Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko each topped $31 million.
Only three of the 53 lots on offer went unsold as the auction house easily exceeded the sale's high estimate of $162 million. By comparison, Sotheby's contemporary auction a year ago managed just $47 million.
The deep spending and competitive bidding that marked sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary/post-war art at Sotheby's and rival Christie's gave testament to pools of wealth worldwide, and the willingness to tap it, analysts said.
"I can't say I would have predicted the snap-back in the market" a few months ago, said Baird Ryan, managing partner of the private financial and consulting services firm Art Capital Group. "It looks very much like a 'V'-shaped recovery," he told Reuters. "There are very few areas of softness."
Analysts, art advisers and auction executives concur the world's wealthy have retained great liquidity through the Great Recession and are once again ready to spend and invest.
Sotheby's officials said the sale had achieved a "great, great result," driven by "a global hunger for great icons," according to Tobias Meyer, its head of contemporary and post-war art, who also served as auctioneer.
"People are willing to break down barriers," he said, pointing to Warhol's 1986 "Self Portrait," a monumental silkscreen being resold by designer Tom Ford that fetched $32,562,500, more than twice the high estimate.
Ford "is very happy," Meyer added.
The other star lot was an untitled 1961 Rothko, which sold for $31.44 million including commission, beating the $25 million high estimate.
Last week Christie's set a record for any work of art auction with Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," which sold for $106.5 million, while Jasper Johns' "Flag" broke the artist's record on Tuesday.
Major dealers including Larry Gagosian, Dominique Levy and Guy Bennett all bid aggressively to win top lots, while Asian buyers snapped up many of the highest priced works at Sotheby's Impressionist sale.
Analysts in recent weeks had predicted strong results for the very best works. But given the traditional view of art as a trailing indicator, as evidenced when prices continued to rise even as the credit crisis took hold, few anticipated a recovery so soon after the financial crisis sent prices plummeting.
But art advisers say collectors are using art as a hedge against inflation.
Ryan drew a correlation between gold, which he said appeals for its stability, low risk and low volatility, and "top works of art being selected as a safe haven, or alternative asset, for the very rich."
"Calder," he added, referring to the artist known for his mobiles, one of which fetched $3.8 million, "looks like currency to me."
Tied in with the recovery in capital markets and equity markets, Ryan said he expected the market to become "broader and deeper and more international than it has ever been."
Editing by Todd Eastham