By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sotheby's staged the biggest auction in its 268-year history on Tuesday, led by a $75 million Mark Rothko and a record-setting $40 million work by Jackson Pollock at its post-war and contemporary art sale.
With an impressive total of $375 million, the auction showed the buoyancy of an art market that has mostly been on a roll since its quick recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.
Sotheby's said it was the best result it ever had for a single auction, and it beat the high pre-sale estimate.
A "screaming pope" piece by Francis Bacon sold for nearly $30 million, a Willem de Kooning fetched just under $20 million and a $17.4 million Gerhard Richter augmented the muscular results for the vibrant Rothko masterpiece "No. 1 (Royal, Red and Blue)" and Pollock's seminal drip painting, "Number 4, 1951."
Officials said they were thrilled with the outcome.
"If you want to talk about the market being happy, healthy and well, well, here it is," said Tobias Meyer, auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art. "That's probably about as good as it gets."
The sale was driven by collectors who flexed their financial muscles after largely sitting on their hands a week ago at Impressionist and modern art auctions. The strong prices gave testament to the deep pockets of determined collectors' pursuit of the rarest and most highly regarded trophy works.
Bidding for the Rothko started at $28 million, but immediately jumped to $35 million. As increments of $1 million drove the price to $56 million, a bidder, who ultimately prevailed, upped the ante by bidding $60 million.
The work, which Sotheby's had estimated would sell for $35 million to $50 million, had been in the same collection since 1982 and thus marked a rare opportunity for trophy hunters. At $71,122,500 including commission, it was the second-highest price paid for a Rothko at auction.
The Pollock, part of a group of eight abstract expressionist works from a private collection, fetched $40.4 million, easily eclipsing Pollock's auction record. It has been estimated to sell for $25 million to $35 million.
Other highlights of the sale, at which virtually every major piece was sold and 85 percent of the 69 lots found buyers, included Andy Warhol's "Suicide," which soared to $15.2 million, or more than twice the pre-sale estimate, and Franz Kline's "Shenandoah," which fetched $9.3 million, beating the high estimate and setting an artist's record.
The auctions wrap up on Wednesday when Christie's holds its sale of post-war and contemporary art.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)