Jasper Johns 'Flag' leads art auction charge

"Flag," a depiction of the Stars and Stripes by Jasper Johns, sold for 28.6 million dollars at Christie's auctioneers Tuesday in New York, smashing the record for the American artist.

The work, an encaustic and printed paper collage on paper over canvas, led the charge at a big-spending sale of modern and contemporary art that also saw an Andy Warhol go for 18.3 million dollars.

Last week at Christie's, a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," set the world record for an art sale at 106.5 million dollars.

This snapped the record set just in February in London of 104.3 million dollars for Alberto Giacometti's "Walking Man I" sculpture and confirmed a return of the bulls to a luxury market laid low by the 2008 global financial crisis.

Bidding was breathless at times in Christie's packed mid-town Manhattan premises.

An excited buzz - and some sarcastic whispering - broke out when Christopher Wool's bare-bones enamel-on-aluminum work, consisting entirely of four large blue letters against white to spell FOOL, sold for five million dollars, well over double the pre-sale estimate.

"Tonight was a spectacular night," Amy Cappellazzo, deputy chairman for Christie's America, said. "What a night. That was great!"

Of 79 lots auctioned, 74 sold, with three quarters of buyers coming from the United States and 21 percent from Europe, Christie's said. None were from Asia.

"Flag," part of an extraordinary collection from the estate of the late thriller writer Michael Crichton, had been estimated to sell for 10 to 15 million dollars.

Seven million dollars opened the sale but fierce bidding saw that figure double within 30 seconds. Applause broke out when the hammer fell at 25.5 million dollars, amounting to a final price of 28,642,500 dollars with commission.

Most of the 31 lots from the Crichton estate beat their pre-auction estimate and often went for well over twice the predicted price. None failed to sell.

The entire collection had been estimated to sell at between 48 and 69 million dollars but raked in 93.3 million dollars.

A Picasso oil painting, "Femme et fillettes," sold for 6.58 million dollars, although this was one of the rare works not to exceed its pre-sale estimate range.

Other successes from the Crichton collection included Jeff Koons' "Vase of Flowers," estimated at a maximum of a million dollars and selling for 2.3 million dollars. Mark Tansey's "Push/Pull," estimated at up to 1.2 million dollars, went under the hammer for 3.2 million dollars.

Works outside of the Crichton collection included Robert Rauschenberg's two-part "Studio Painting" selling at 11,058,500 dollars, and "Anthropometrie Le Buffle," by Yves Klein, which sold for 12.4 million dollars.

Warhol's "Silver Liz" fetched 18,338,500 dollars, well over the pre-sale estimate range of 10-15 million dollars.

Cappellazzo said Warhol works, a pop art bellwether, performed well and this "sent a signal to the market that things are strong across the board."

However, she said the art market is not back at the "irrational exuberance" of pre-financial crisis days.

"It's strong, but selective," she said.

On Wednesday, Christie's rival Sotheby's holds its contemporary art sale in New York.

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