Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis” sold for $37 million and works by Roy Lichtenstein and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei broke their own records at Sotheby’s contemporary art sale on Wednesday.
Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl,” depicting a woman with closed eyes and flowing blond hair, fetched $44,882,500; Weiwei’s 1-ton, handmade porcelain “Sunflower Seeds” brought $782,500.
Another major work on the auction block — Francis Bacon’s “Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror” — sold for $44,882,500. The buyers’ names for each of the four pieces were not released.
The sale came on the heels of art auction history. Last week, the auction house sold Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for $119.9 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
“The reason for these record-breaking sales is, quite simply, the quality of material on show,” said Michael Frahm, a contemporary art adviser at the London-based Frahm Ltd. “The key is quality.”
Warhol’s “Double Elvis (Ferus Type),” a silver silkscreen image of Elvis Presley depicted as a cowboy, fetched $37,042,500. It had been expected to sell for $30 million to $50 million. The auction house said it was the first “Double Elvis” to appear on the market since 1995. Warhol produced a series of 22 images of Elvis. Nine are in museum collections.
The rock and roll heartthrob is shown armed and shooting from the hip, a shadowy Elvis figure faintly visible in the background. It was offered for sale by a private American collector, who acquired it in 1977.
The record for a Warhol is $71.7 million for his “Green Car Crash — Green Burning Car I,” sold at Christie’s in 2007.
Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl,” was one of a series of sexy comic book-inspired images created by the artist in the 1960s, the work was exhibited only once — at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1989-90. It was sold by the estate of Los Angeles collectors and philanthropists Beatrice and Phillip Gersh, who were the founding members of MOCA.
His “I Can See the Whole Room! … and There’s Nobody in it!” held the previous auction record for the artist. It sold for $43.2 million at Christie’s in November.
Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” is one of an edition of 10 and was accompanied by a certificate signed by the artist. The ceramic seeds, which can be arranged in a myriad of shapes, were the subject of a Tate Modern exhibit in 2010. The previous Weiwei auction record was $657,000 for his “Chandelier,” set at Sotheby’s in 2007.
The work is fraught with symbolism. Sunflowers are at once a Chinese street snack and also an emblem adopted by Mao Zedong.
“The works by Ai Weiwei and Francis Bacon are hot for different reasons,” said Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. “One is electrified by the artist’s political provocations, and the other by the frisson of sexual mystery.”
Bacon’s “Figure Writing,” which depicts the artist and his partner, George Dyer, writing at a table, was included in a 1977 Paris exhibition alongside “Triptych,” a 1976 work by the artist that sold for $86.2 million at Sotheby’s in 2008. It held the record for any contemporary artwork at auction until Tuesday night when Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” claimed that title when it sold at Christie’s for $86.8 million.
It had been in the same private collection for more than 30 years.
The “Elvis” silkscreen was exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963, the year it was created. The auction catalog described the work, based on a movie publicity photo, as “the deification of a contemporary warrior-saint, the towering, pre-eminent idol bearing a deadly weapon as if protecting the mythical world of celebrity itself.”