Records were shattered on Tuesday at Sotheby's $255 million auction of contemporary and postwar art, the biggest in history, which was led by a $73 million Rothko and a $53 million Bacon.
Both works obliterated the old mark for any postwar work at auction of $27.1 million set last November and far exceeded their pre-sale estimates, ushering in a new world of higher prices for contemporary art.
"We're obviously thrilled with the results," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art who also served as auctioneer.
The record results "showed how aggressive and strong the contemporary art market is," Meyer said, adding that like last week's Impressionist and modern art sales, the auction was marked by "lots of international bidding."
Records were set for 15 artists in all, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose untitled work from 1981 fetched $14.6 million including commission, about twice its estimate and nearly three times the artist's old record. The work was being sold by the Israel Museum.
The sale, with 88 percent of its 74 offerings finding buyers, took in $254,874,000, or just under its high pre-sale estimate.
Roughly half of that came from the top two lots: Rothko's 1950 Abstract Expressionist "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)," and Bacon's "Study from Pope Innocent X," which sold for $72.84 million and $52.68 million respectively.
Both Sotheby's and rival Christie's had set unprecedented, and seemingly aggressive, prices in excess of $30 million for its top postwar works this season, but those turned out to be conservative on Tuesday.
The astounding prices surprised even Sotheby's officials. "We didn't expect them to sell as well as they did," Meyer said of the Rothko and Bacon paintings.
But the spike in prices for top works "means that there clearly exists a huge interest in this field, and in the icons of contemporary art," senior international specialist for contemporary art Anthony Grant told Reuters.
"When we can identify those icons, the sky can be the limit," Grant said.
Among the evening's few casualties were two works by Jackson Pollock, neither of which approached its estimates and which the auction house ended up owning. "We perhaps moved ahead of the market," said Grant, "and it illustrates the difference between the icons and 'just good' works."
The Rothko was sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, who attended the sale.
Other artists setting new records included Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Prince, Tom Wesselmann, Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis and Dan Flavin.
The spring sales wrap up on Wednesday with Christie's contemporary and post-war sale led by a $35 million Warhol from the late pop artist's Death and Disaster series.