The $71 Million Car Crash

Rockefeller paid less than $10,000. It was previously owned by Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson, niece of Lillie P. Bliss, one of the three founders of MoMA. Parkinson purchased the work from Rothko earlier in 1960.

"I am sorry to see it go, but I hope the next owner enjoys it as much as I have," Rockefeller, who was at Tuesday's auction, said in a statement.

There were 74 lots with only nine works failing to sell. While the $254.8 million night was a record, it did fall short of Sotheby's $265 million high estimate.

Both Sotheby's and Christie's charge a 20 percent commission on the first $500,000 of the auction sale price, and 12 percent on anything above that.

That means Sotheby's made nearly $8.8 million on the $72.8 million paid for the Rothko. The auction house brought in more than $30 million in total commissions for the one-night sale.

A Hot Market

Contemporary art was once cast to the sidelines of serious big-dollar collecting, but is now scorching hot.

The market has climbed at astronomical rates thanks to a new breed of younger, richer art buyers who are willing to shell out big bucks to get the piece they want. The buying is fueled by super-rich Asians, Russians, Europeans and a crop of wealthy Americans who made billions in hedge funds and real estate.

"There's a huge amount of money around the world available at the moment. You've got a lot of newer collectors coming in who basically have the financial facility to win any bidding war," said Brett Gorvy, co-head of post-war and contemporary art for Christie's.

"It's been the last year and a half where we've seen staggering prices for the best work," Gorvy said.

Even the auction houses have underestimated the supercharged bidding.

In November, Christie's offered a Clyfford Still painting that was estimated to bring in $5 million to $7 million. It sold for $21.3 million.

"That demonstrated the focus of collectors on the very, very best, and also the ability of collectors not to be held back by previous price structures," he said. "Basically, they are making the market and they are making it at auction."

Who Are the Buyers?

Sotheby's Grant said that among the new groups in the market were hedge fund managers, a group not hurting for disposable income. The industry magazine Alpha estimates The top 25 hedge fund managers made a combined $14 billion last year.

"They seemed to have gravitated toward this field and modern painting, and I think that does account for a fair amount of what's going on," he said. "I think any new group coming in is going to drive up prices."

Heller described the new buyers as more international and younger.

It used to be that the only buyers with enough money for these works were in their 50s and 60s -- people who amassed wealth after a career working. Today, people have great amounts of money at a younger age.

But Heller dismissed the idea that hedge fund money was pushing up prices.

"There are maybe 10 hedge fund collectors. They're not driving this market," Heller said. "They're part of it, but it's like saying the Russians are driving the market or the Asians are driving the market or the New York real estate guys are driving the market. It's not any one thing."

Heller, who is based in New York, has been known to work with some big-name hedge fund managers. He would not talk about his clients or specific work, except to say that he would be at this week's sales.

"You hire me when you want every advantage," he said.

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