IF major auctions in New York are anything to go by, then the amount of money being spent on blue-chip pieces of Modern and Contemporary art is now almost back to the level seen before the market crashed 18 months ago.

Untitled by Maurizio Cattelan, a wax figure self portait from 2001, that made a record $7m (£4.79m) at Sotheby's evening sale of Contemporary art in New York on May 12.

At last week's Contemporary art sales in the Big Apple, Sotheby's and Christie's raised a combined hammer total of $462m (£316) which, when added to the $519m (£355m) seen the week before at the Impressionist and Modern sales, took the overall figure for the art market's flagship fortnight to just shy of $1bn.

Last year's equivalent sales, which took place during what now appears to have been the market's nadir, made under $300m - a serious drop-off from the boom-time figure of $1.2bn in May 2008.

With the latest sales taking place in a volatile financial climate as the values of stocks, shares and currencies fluctuated with news of the Greek debt crisis, collectors and investors clearly viewed art as a good bet for planting their capital, a trend that also applied to other tangible assets such as gold bullion.

After the Impressionist & Modern series saw a record for any work of art ever sold at auction - Picasso's 1932 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which made $95m (£65.1m) at Christie's (see last week's ATG) - there was a sense of momentum leading into the Contemporary sales.

This was duly realised as the evening sales at Christie's on May 11 and Sotheby's on May 12 performed well against their predicted levels and saw high selling rates.
Christie's made a hammer total of £201.6m (£138.1m) against a pre-sale estimate of $147m-207m with 74 of the 79 lots finding buyers.

This included all 31 works from the estate of writer Michael Crichton, which all sold and added $81.5m (£55.8m) to the total. The top lot of the sale came from this collection, which had come to the market following Crichton's death in 2008 aged 66.

This was the much-publicised Jasper Johns (b. 1930) Flag from 1960-66 that Crichton had bought directly from the artist in 1973.

The 171/2in x 2ft 3in (45 x 68cm) encaustic and newspaper collage laid down on canvas was estimated at $10m-15m and was knocked down to the Pennsylvania-based dealers the Avery Galleries at $25.5m (£17.4m). They were thought to be buying for an unidentified client. This was a new high for the artist at auction.

Sotheby's evening sale the night after made less than Christie's, but their $166.3m (£113.9m) total was above the $114m-162m pre-sale estimate.

With 50 of their 53 lots getting away, Sotheby's made the two highest prices of the Contemporary week as Andy Warhol's (1928-87) Self Portrait from 1986 made $29m (£19.9m) and Mark Rothko's (1903-1970) Untitled painting from 1961 took $28m (£19.2m).

Both went above estimate and sold to private collectors on the telephone.

Sotheby's Worldwide head of Contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, who was on the rostrum for the sale, said: "On both of these objects we saw global bidding from a global community that will seek out trophies and, once found, will go full throttle."

Significant prices were also seen further down the sale, including the record $7m (£4.79m) bid at Sotheby's by an anonymous buyer for Maurizio Cattelan's (b.1960) Untitled. A self-portait from 2001, with a wax figure of the artist clambering out of a hole in a gallery floor (real hair included), was one of an edition of three plus one artist's proof.

Estimated at $3m-4m, it made a significant rise from the $1.8m (£967,750) seen when it last appeared at auction at Christie's New York in November 2004.

In addition to this, strong bidding and new buyers were also reported at the Contemporary art day sales. Christie's achieved a hammer total of $49.6m (£40m) from their two sessions on May 12 (327 of 382 lots sold), while Sotheby's made $44m (£27.4m) on May 13 (295 of 377 lots sold).

by Alex Capon

£1 = $1.46