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Christie's sale reflects robust art market

| Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

NEW YORK — Francis Bacon's “Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards,” depicting his longtime companion in twisted poses, fetched $80.8 million at Christie's on Tuesday.

The triptych's sale in New York fell within of the estimated range of $75 million to $95 million. The 1984 work, showing the artist's confidant sitting on a stool with his leg crossed over his knee against a pale green background, fell short of the $142.4 million achieved for Bacon's “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in November. Bacon's Freud triptych holds the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction.

The Bacon went on sale early during Christie's 72-lot auction of postwar and contemporary art, which is expected to bring about $500 million. It was one of 40 guaranteed lots in the sale, up from 15 a year ago, which means the sellers receive an undisclosed minimum price regardless of whether the work sells. The auction is continuing.

Prices for top-tier postwar and contemporary artworks are on the rise as collectors view them as investments and status symbols. Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips this week expect to sell as much as $1.5 billion of art. The sales are part of the semi-annual auctions in New York, considered important barometers of the art market's health. Prices include commissions; estimates don't.

Global annual sales of postwar and contemporary art increased by 11 percent in 2013, with a highest-ever auction tally of $6.7 billion, according to a report published in March by the European Fine Art Foundation. New York confirmed its position as the center for the biggest auction and gallery transactions, according to Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist who compiled the report.

Christie's sold $134.6 million of contemporary art on Monday in New York in an hour in an auction titled “If I Live I'll See You Tuesday,” taken from a Richard Prince work. International buyers from 26 countries helped Christie's surpass its high target of $124.1 million for the sale.

Two works from Andy Warhol's “Death and Disaster” series sold for a combined $100 million.

Warhol's “Race Riot, 1964” sold Tuesday for $62.9 million, exceeding the auction estimate of $45 million.

His 1962 “White Marilyn” painting of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe sold for $41 million, well above its estimated $12 million to $18 million.

Both Warhol paintings caused fierce bidding at Christie's auction of postwar and contemporary works.

“Race Riot, 1964” is a rare four-panel painting of the Birmingham, Alabama, race riots. “White Marilyn” was painted shortly after Monroe took her life. A Martin Kippenberger painting from 1988 of a slouching man in his underwear was the top lot sold, fetching $18.6 million. The painting had a high estimate of $12 million.

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