NEW YORK (Reuters) - The record breaking $142.4 million sale of Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" shows confidence in the art market and that the very wealthy see it as a safe haven for their money, experts said on Wednesday.
Bacon's 1969 three-panel painting, the most valuable ever sold at auction, was one of 10 world record prices set at Christie's Tuesday evening sale of post-war and contemporary art. The New York event achieved the highest auction total in art market history with $691 million in sales.
The Bacon work sold after six minutes of fierce bidding, easily surpassing the previous record of $119.9 million set in May 2012 for Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Jeff Koons' sculpture, "Balloon Dog (Orange)" fetched $58.4 million, the highest auction price for a work by a living artist.
"What we are experiencing now is a kind of melt-up in the market. It is a combination of tremendous surplus capital, and the need of this small band of ultra-high-net-worth individuals to invest all that surplus cash in assets that will appreciate," said art advisor Todd Levin, the director of Levin Art Group in New York.
"Art, for better or worse, is one of these places that they feel is a safe haven to put their money to work," he added.
Art collectors with deep pockets from 42 countries registered for Christie's sale, with Americans, Europeans and Asians among the strongest bidders.
Three lots fetched more than $50 million each, 11 sold for over $20 million and 16 achieved in excess of $10 million.
Colin Sheaf, deputy chairman and head of Asian Art at Bonhams in London, said the sale was not only proof of confidence in the art market at the highest level but also a reflection of the quality of art on sale.
"But the fact is when exceptional objects come to market in times when people have got a lot of liquid cash, and when interest rates are low, that's often an incentive to put their money into something which is absolutely magnificent in its own right ... and continue to be exceptional," he said.
Bacon's triptych, showing his friend and fellow painter Lucian Freud on a chair with side and face-on views, had never been offered at auction before, making it very appealing for high-end buyers.
"It just reflects that this is one of the greatest Bacons in private hands and now it is in a different pair of private hands," said Sheaf.
Levin added that the high end of the art market is very strong because the people who have tremendous amounts of capital to spend are speculating in the market.
"You can't invest in art, but you can speculate, and they view art as a commodifiable asset that they are comfortable putting a significant portion of their net worth into," he said.
"If significant fresh-to-the market work of extraordinary quality come up, it will continue to sell for very high prices to this very slim, narrow margin of ultra-high-net-worth buyers," he added.
Brett Gorvy, Christie's head of postwar and contemporary art, believes it is not a bubble.
"Our top collectors bid very, very aggressively for the best of the best," he said after the sale, adding that many collectors were coming into the market.
The state of the art market will be put to another test on Wednesday when Sotheby's holds its sale of post-war and contemporary art.
Additional reporting by Michael Roddy in London; Editing by Eric Kelsey and David Brunnstrom