The stunning $61.7 million sale Wednesday of a painting by American abstract artist Clyfford Still capped a week of record prices at auctions in New York, despite turmoil in the world's financial markets.
Against the backdrop of a noisy protest by union workers outside, Sotheby's sold Still's painting "1949-A-No. 1" for almost three times the previous record of $21.3 million for works by the famously reclusive artist, who died in 1980.
Considered a masterpiece of abstract expressionism, "1949-A-No. 1" focuses on an uneven, vertical white splash across a moody mix of black and red.
The auction room buzzed with excitement as a bidding war pushed the price higher, with auctioneer Tobias Meyer stoking competition between five bidders. "I love this rhythm. Don't break it," he urged.
A second painting by Still, titled "1947-Y-No.2," sold immediately afterwards for $31.4 million, easily surpassing the presale high estimate of $20 million.
The presale estimate for "1949-A-No. 1" had been between $25-35 million and the stratospheric success of the work led a total of $315.8 million in sales at Sotheby's evening of contemporary art.
Contemporary art was also on a roll across town at rival auction house Christie's. The previous day, Christie's got a world record price for a Pop Art work by Roy Lichtenstein, "I Can See the Whole Room!... and There's Nobody in It!."
That painting sold for $43.2 million, beating the auction record of $42.6 million, and helping Christie's reap a better-than-expected total of $247.6 million in its contemporary art sale.
Other big works at Sotheby's on Wednesday included Francis Bacon's "Three Studies for a Self-Portrait," executed in the artist's familiar tortured style, selling for $19.7 million.
A Gerhard Richter painting "Abstraktes Bild," sold for $20.8 million, far above its presale high estimate of $12 million and also a record for the artist.
Meyer said afterwards that the auction was the best for contemporary art since the 2008 financial crisis and he described the Still sale as "a magic moment."
Meanwhile, there was drama outside the auction house as well, with union workers and a contingent from the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrating noisily against Sotheby's.
Unionized art handlers at Sotheby's say they've been locked out of the company during contract negotiations. Sotheby's responded in a statement it was negotiating in good faith and offering "a very fair contract, which includes wage increases."
Police and black-clad Sotheby's security staff had to escort wealthy clients into the building through the gantlet of demonstrators.
"Shame on you!" the demonstrators screamed. And: "You don't deserve it!"
Protestor Ellen Friedland, who works for a non-profit group helping immigrants, said she came to oppose "union busting tactics.... It's another way to undermine working people in this country."
The deafening whistling, trumpeting and yelling penetrated into the Sotheby's building. But once up in the cavernous main auction room on the 7th floor, the noise was barely audible, as Meyer ran through the catalog of multi-million dollar works, including Andy Warhols, Damien Hirsts and other mega-stars of the contemporary art market.
The undoubted star on the auction block, though, was Still. In all, a group of four of Still's works was sold, fetching a combined total of $114.1 million.
Sotheby's described "1949-A-No. 1" as "one of the greatest examples of 20th century American painting."