NEW YORK (Reuters) - The art auctions ended with a flourish on Wednesday as Sotheby's sold $316 million of contemporary and postwar art, the best result of two weeks of sales and led by a $61.7 million Clyfford Still abstract.
The sale, held amid a backdrop of world financial market turmoil, gave Sotheby's its highest contemporary total since May 2008 -- when the art market was at its peak and just months before the financial crisis took hold.
"The sale blew every expectation away," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art who also served as auctioneer.
The $315,837,000 total including commissions easily beat the presale estimate of $192 million to $270 million.
"It was one of the best auctions I've ever seen in my life," said Nicolai Frahm, a leading London-based contemporary art adviser. "And in the middle of a recession," he added.
Sotheby's scored a coup by landing a group of four Stills, whose works virtually never come to market and which were being sold by the city of Denver to benefit a new Still museum opening there this month.
Led by "1949-A-No. 1," which soared to $61,682,500 against an estimate of $30 million and smashed the record for the artist, the group of abstracts took in $114 million, nearly twice the pre-sale estimate.
Similarly, a group of eight works by Gerhard Richter totaled $74 million, nearly three times the low estimate. The artist's abstract numbered (849-3) fetched $20.8 million, nearly twice the estimate and setting an artist's record.
Francis Bacon's "Three Studies for a Self Portrait" also fared well, selling for $19.7 million.
Several works produced protracted bidding wars, yielding records for artists including Joan Mitchell and Cady Noland.
"It is incredible to see prices like this in a deep recession," said Frahm. "But people still have a lot of money, and it seems art is one of the very few asset classes where it's safe to put your money -- if you buy the right works."
Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas, concurred.
"We have seen two weeks of record-breaking prices for artists across price bands whenever the object has the requisites of quality and freshness to the market," he said.
Not everyone was thrilled with the auction, however. Protesters supporting union art handlers locked out by Sotheby's in a protracted labor dispute staged a noisy protest as well-heeled clients navigated their way inside.
An undetermined number were detained after locking themselves together and blocking the sidewalk but police had no information on arrests.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh