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It was raining money in New York this week, as the contemporary art auctions pulverised most of the existing market records. In an epic buying spree, collectors, dealers and investors splurged more than $1.1bn on the giants of 20th-century art – Bacon, Rothko, de Kooning and Warhol – as well as propelling a living artist – Jeff Koons – to an unprecedented new price high.

Christie’s emerged the clear winner, achieving the highest total ever for any sale and the highest price ever made at auction for a work by a living artist.

The run-up to its November 12 sale had been feverish, with 10,000 visitors attending the preview and 1,400 bidders packed into the firm’s Rockefeller Centre salesroom. So intense was the interest from the secretive big buyers that Christie’s was forced to build an extra “skybox” with one-way glass to accommodate the numbers.

The final tally for its evening sale, $691m, made it the highest-grossing auction ever, and the star lot, Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, soared to $142.2m, shattering its $85m-plus pre-sale target. New York dealer Acquavella carried it off, snatching the prize from underbidder Hong Gyu Shin of New York’s Shin Gallery, which specialises in Korean art. In a last-minute switch, Christie’s had moved the work to the beginning of the sale, to number 8a. Why? Eight is auspicious in Asia, and the work attracted at least one other Asian bidder; or perhaps the change was to free up buying power for bidders on other works, or even to allow the unidentified seller of the Bacon to pick up something later in the sale.

Jeff Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog’
Jeff Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog’, which sold for $58.4m

The ploy certainly worked. Four lots later Jeff Koons’s 20ft-high orange “Balloon Dog” romped to $58.4m (est. $35m-$55m; estimates don’t include fees, but final prices do), crowning Koons as the world’s most expensive living artist. The pricey pooch had been sent for sale by publisher Peter Brant and like the Bacon it carried a third-party guarantee.

Mere money started seeming almost meaningless in the saleroom and even the audience gradually stopped clapping as records fell thick and fast. A Lucio Fontana made $20.9m, going to the New York dealer Dominique Levy, who buys for the Mexican collector David Martinez; Levy was highly active at the sale at the top levels, also underbidding the de Kooning (which made a record $32m) and Christopher Wool ($26.5m). Leaving the saleroom, one private dealer said: “There’s too much money in too many places at the moment, and art is a solid place to park it.” Is it a bubble? No, said Christie’s contemporary art honcho Brett Gorvy: “It’s the beginning of something new …collectors were buying sensibly.” Believe him or not, the success of the sale was certainly underpinned by the sheer number of guarantees either given by Christie’s or third parties – a remarkable 22 lots of the 69-lot total.

Without Christie’s, Sotheby’s session the following night would have looked more triumphant. Buyers still had money in their pockets: the tally of $380.6m was the firm’s highest total ever, and the evening was crowned with a new record for Warhol when “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” (1963) vaulted past its $60m+ target to make $105.4m after a prolonged bout between two telephone bidders. Gerhard Richter’s “A.B. Courbet” (1986), one of a group of works sent for sale by the beleaguered hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, achieved $26.5m. He had bought it at Art Basel last year for about $20m.

Cohen was not so lucky with some of his other consignments, which were worth about $77m. The almost clown-like portrait of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol on an acid yellow background, “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz)” (1963) went just under estimate at $20.3m, and a Maurizio Cattelan failed to find a buyer. Still, as Sotheby’s had guaranteed six of the Cohen consignments, the hedge-funder may well have come out on top.

Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Woman with Peanuts’
Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Woman with Peanuts’ (1962), which sold for $10.8m

“The market is alive and happy,” pronounced Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer after the sale. But not everyone was as happy, and a French dealer quoted in Le Quotidien de l’Art said: “The prices are horrifying! Each time, the market steps closer to the cliff edge,” while collector Michael Orvitz told Bloomberg after Christie’s sale: “For a moment last night I thought I was in the commodities market.”

Perhaps mindful of the blockbuster sales coming up this week, Phillips made a last-minute decision to change its auction of contemporary art from its usual Thursday to Monday night, hoping to catch buyers before they had emptied their pockets. It proved to be a winning strategy: the firm’s 40-lot session raised just over $68m, on the low estimate, with only five casualties. Five new records were set for artists from David Hammons to Jacob Kassay, one of whose typical silvered pieces made $317,000. Top lot was Lichtenstein’s “Woman with Peanuts” (1962), which sold to a single telephone bidder for $10.8m, just under its $10m-$15m estimate.

Helly Nahmad, scion of the billionaire art-dealing Nahmad family, has pleaded guilty to illegal gambling in New York. He had been accused of racketeering, money laundering, extortion and gambling offences, as part of a wide-ranging FBI investigation of gambling rings allegedly organised by the Russian mafia. His guilty plea was for being the organiser and leader of a gambling ring, and the other charges have been dropped. Nahmad has agreed to pay a $6.4m fine and hand over a Dufy painting to the US authorities. While the original charges carried a possible prison sentence of up to 92 years, it is likely that when he is sentenced in April next year, the penalty will be far lighter.

Just before publishing its third-quarter results this week, Sotheby’s announced that it had pulled the plug on Noortmans, the Dutch Old Master paintings gallery founded by Robert Noortman in 1968 and acquired by the auction house in 2006. At the time, Sotheby’s paid $56.5m of the total $82m purchase price in company shares, which included $26m in debt. Noortman died the following year, and his son William took over, but the acquisition proved problematic. The Amsterdam space was closed and the gallery moved to London, but it missed its financial targets: in 2012 Sotheby’s clawed back some of the shares and wrote down $8.3m of inventory while announcing that lower-valued works of art were being sold off through other auction houses. In closing the dealer, Sotheby’s seems to be taking account of one of the complaints of the activist investor Marcato, which recommended eliminating the “value diminishing dealer segment” in Sotheby’s accounts, saying that it represented $61m in accumulated losses since 2007.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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