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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Collectors spent big money at Christie's postwar and contemporary art auction on Tuesday, led by Jasper Johns' pop art painting "Flag" from a collection that had belonged to best-selling author Michael Crichton, which sold for a record $28.64 million.
The $232 million total from the auction, including commission, marked the third consecutive night at which Christie's and rival Sotheby's met or exceeded pre-sale estimates for the annual spring sales. Of the 79 lots on offer, only five failed to sell.
Crichton's collection, one of the season's star estate sales, soared to $93.3 million -- half again the pre-sale estimate -- and achieved the highest ever total for a post-war collection, officials said.
While foreign buying has helped drive the market's recovery, nearly three-quarters of the buyers were American, as expected for what Christie's described as "a quintessentially American sale."
Amy Cappellazzo, Christie's international co-head of post-war and contemporary art, said the market, seemingly well on its way to recovery, now seemed "more sober."
"There's not this irrational exuberance," she said, comparing it to the late years of the boom before the economic crash in 2008. "It's strong, but selective."
Well-heeled collectors showed enthusiasm, and readiness to pay, for rare works like Johns' "Flag" and Andy Warhol's "Silver Liz," which fetched more than $18 million.
"Flag" one of several painted between 1960 and 1966, sold for nearly twice the high estimate, smashing the artist's auction record but falling short of the record for any living artist.
The winning bid was placed by U.S. dealer Richard Rossello of Avery Galleries.
"What was so fascinating to us was to see so many new buyers," said Brett Gorvy, Christie's post-war and contemporary co-head.
Warhols did well after a few seasons of flagging prices, while works by Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein both exceeded high estimates and sold for more than $10 million.
Another highlight was Yves Klein's "Anthropometrie 'Le Buffle' ANT 93," one of the French artist's "living brushes" works which sold for $12.4 million to an undisclosed European buyer.
The spring sales wrap up on Wednesday, when Sotheby's post-war and contemporary auction features an Andy Warhol self portrait executed just a year before his death in 1987.