Expectations high for record spending at New York art auctions

By Chris Michaud
General view of the Sotheby's building in New York, February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Chris Michaud

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The gavel will not come down on the first lot of New York's major fall auctions until Tuesday, but records have already fallen and more are virtually certain once the bidding actually begins.

With a global pool of collectors competing for more than $1.5 billion worth of fine art, the city's top auction houses are expecting record values for trophy works at sales over the next two weeks.

Sotheby's has the season's top lot, Alberto Giacometti's "Chariot," a 1951 bronze sculpture, which could set a record for the artist.

"Given the $104.3 million achieved at Sotheby’s by

Giacometti’s 'Homme qui marche I in 2010,' we believe that 'Chariot' could sell for in excess of $100 million," said Simon Shaw, Sotheby's co-head of Impressionist and modern art.

Christie's estimates its postwar and contemporary art auction will total more than $600 million, the highest pre-sale estimate ever for any single sale.

Christie's achieved the best total in the history of auctions in May when it sold $745 million worth of art at its postwar and contemporary sale.

Nine lots in Christie's carry estimates of about $25 million or more, with at least three likely to fetch more than $50 million each.

Mark Rothko's 1951 canvas "No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange)," with a presale estimate of more than $50 million, leads Sotheby's postwar and contemporary sales.

"It's a perfect storm of willing buyers and willing sellers," said Sara Friedlander, head of Christie's' evening sale.Highlights at Christie's include two Andy Warhols: "Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)" and "Four Marlons." The Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando works together are estimated at more than $130 million.

"Given the current strength of the market, especially for works by Andy Warhol, it is now the right moment to part from these works," said Lothar Dunkel, managing director of WestSpiel, the German casino operator that is selling never-before auctioned art.

Although it has been eclipsed by contemporary art, Impressionist and modern offerings still attract big spending.

At Christie's, Edouard Manet's "Le printemps" is estimated to sell for up to $35 million, which would surpass the artist's record of $33.2 million.

Sotheby's is offering another rare sculpture, Amedeo Modigliani's "Tete" expected to exceed $45 million. Its other postwar highlights include Warhol's "Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz)," a 1963 portrait of movie star Elizabeth Taylor estimated at $30 million.

Its Impressionist sale includes Van Gogh's "Nature morte, vase aux marguerites et coquelicots" ($30 million to $50 million).

At Christie's, Francis Bacon's "Seated Figure" is estimated to sell for up to $60 million. A year ago, the artist set record for the most expensive work of art ever auctioned when his triptych "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" sold for $142.3 million.

The sales kick off on Tuesday at Sotheby's, which will hold its sales of Impressionist and modern art, followed by Christie's sale in the same category on Wednesday. Both houses will auction contemporary and postwar works a week later.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jonathan Oatis)