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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Spring art auctions ended on Thursday with another big Andy Warhol sale when "Liz #5" sold for $27 million at Phillips de Pury's $99 million contemporary art sale.
The pop artist's iconic portrait of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor went a long way toward the total for Phillips, the number-three auction house behind Sotheby's and Christie's, where Warhols also played a huge role this season.
"We're thrilled with the strong results ... (which were) more than double this time last year," said Phillips chairman Simon de Pury, who also served as auctioneer.
Other highlights included Warhol's collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Third Eye," which fetched $7 million including commission, more than twice the high estimate and a record for a joint work by the two artists.
Warhol's "Flowers" sold for just over $8.1 million, while "Mao (10) went for $4 million, each clearing the low estimate.
The sale capped two weeks of mixed results, with wobbly Impressionist and modern sales, a strong result at Sotheby's sale of works from dealer Allan Stone's estate and a terrific total Wednesday when Christie's sold more than $300 million in contemporary and post-war art.
Marc Porter, Christie's Americas chairman, said the strong results "illustrate the global demand for works of art created by the broadest spectrum of artists and cultures."
"As the audience grows and prices increase, we expect superb consignments" later this year, Porter said.
Officials at both houses spoke of the difficulty assembling sales this year, largely due to the relative absence of estate sales, which tend to draw higher prices.
With demand outstripping supply as more collectors see art as a real asset and inflation hedge amid volatile financial markets, the houses worked hard to induce scores of clients to sell individual works, enticing them with estimates that in some cases were too aggressive for the market.
The result was a few sales where the total did not achieve even the low estimate.
But the Mei Moses Art Index, which tracks returns on publicly sold art, said that "from a financial returns perspective, the (Impressionist) results were quite strong," particularly when compared to the returns the S&P 500 Total Return index would have provided -- nearly twice as good.
"We are encouraged by what we have seen over these past two weeks, where that classic formula for success -- very high quality works that are fresh to the market -- has been much in evidence," said Sotheby's president and CEO Bill Ruprecht.
Baird Ryan, the former managing partner of the investment firm Art Capital Group who now advises clients privately on acquisitions and sales, was also bullish.
"With the past two weeks, it is clear we now have a healthy, active market that in my view will certainly find new highs in the next two to three years," said Ryan, who attended all the sales at the three auction houses.
Art "has become a great alternative asset class, with a built-in inflation hedge," he said.