Spring Thaw at Sotheby's

A Warhol self-portrait owned by Tom Ford almost doubled its estimate, while works by Marden and Cattelan broke records. Jacob Bernstein reports from Sotheby’s Contemporary art auction, its best since before the crisis.

05.13.10 1:14 AM ET

A Warhol self-portrait owned by Tom Ford almost doubled its estimate, while works by Marden and Cattelan broke records. Jacob Bernstein reports from Sotheby’s contemporary art auction, its best since before the crisis.

The contemporary art evening at Sotheby’s on Wednesday was a little like the current economic moment.

With sales topping $189 million, it was the auction house’s best night since spring 2008, auctioneer Tobias Meyer said afterward. Moreover, of more than 50 lots, only three failed to sell.

Click Below to View Our Gallery of Sotheby's Contemporary Art Auction

Which means the worst appears to be over, though people in the art world, as with other industries, still aren’t quite as over the top about buying as they might have been at the peak of the boom, before the subprime-mortgage crisis hit.

As expected, the evening’s biggest success story was a massive Andy Warhol self-portrait from 1986, which was being sold off by the clothing designer and movie director Tom Ford.

Bidding for the work began at $8 million, $2 million less than its low estimate, and within seconds had reached $15 million, its high.

Christie's Auctions Michael Crichton’s Pop Masterpieces: View Our Gallery From there, the whole thing headed to the stratosphere, as the boys and girls working their phones went nuts, covering their mouths as they briefed potential buyers on the rapidly increasing price of the painting, which went up in $250,000 increments and went up and up and up.

“Do I hear $15 million?” Meyer said.

And he did.

“Fifteen million, two hundred and fifty thousand,” he said, as another person raised a hand.

“Fifteen million, five hundred thousand,” he said, rattling off the numbers, until bidding topped out at $29 million—$32.6 million, actually, once Sotheby’s commission is included—a fairly remarkable number given that the Warhol wasn’t one of his images from the early ’60s.

“Tom Ford is very happy,” Meyer said afterward, as a handful of press mingled about.

An auction for an orange-ish Mark Rothko painting from 1961 featuring two of the artist’s signature blocks had a slightly more languid quality, but the quiet was deceiving. The painting went for $31.4 million.

Brice Marden, meanwhile, whose record sale before Wednesday night was $4.3 million, managed to rake in $9.6 million for a painting from his iconic Cold Mountain series. Still, this was slightly less than what Sotheby’s had been predicting the painting would fetch, at the low end of its estimate.

But perhaps the evening’s biggest winner—at least among the living artists, as opposed to the sellers or dead painters—was Maurizio Cattelan. The self-taught Italian sculptor and painter, who began his career drawing mustaches onto figures of St. Anthony (for which he was fired from a parish gift shop), sold a painting for $7 million before commissions, more than double his $3.03 million record.

Cattelan rose to fame in the mid-’90s and has been known since then as something of an art world wild card. In 2003, he was commissioned by Peter Brant to do a portrait of his then-wife, the supermodel Stephanie Seymour. Instead of making it conventionally pretty, Cattelan did a richly ironic sculpture of her naked and covered in plastic, a sly commentary on her mannequin-trophy wife image.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.