By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Andy Warhol's "One Dollar", the first in his dollar bill series, fetched 20.9 million pounds ($32.4 million) at Sotheby's on Wednesday, the top-seller in what the auction house said was its highest ever total sales for an auction of contemporary art in London.
However, the auction's star attraction, Francis Bacon's "Study for a Pope I", which had been estimated at 25 to 35 million pounds, went unsold after bids failed to reach the reserve price.
"It wasn't the night for that one picture," said Oliver Barker, Sotheby's senior international specialist in contemporary art.
As a result, overall sales at the auction came in at just over 130 million pounds, below the pre-sale low estimate of 142 million pounds.
Despite the Bacon disappointment, Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby's co-head of contemporary art, said the auction house had seen sales of more than half a billion pounds in recent weeks in London, establishing the British capital as an art hub to rival New York.
Last week, Sotheby's saw sales of 178.6 million pounds at one auction in London, with 10 of the 51 lots selling for more than 10 million pounds, while on Tuesday an auction of post war and contemporary art at Christie's totaled 95.6 million pounds.
The soaring sums come after two weeks of sales in New York in May brought in well over $2 billion at both houses.
Wednesday's Sotheby's auction was dominated by eight works by Warhol, inspired by the U.S. dollar and with the American pop artist 's 1962 hand-painted "One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate)" exceeding its top of estimate of 18 million pounds to reach 20.9 million.
The works sold for a combined total of 34.3 million pounds, while another 11 in the series go under the hammer on Thursday.
Among the other big sellers was Gerhard Richter's 1987 work "A B, Brick Tower", which sold for 14.2 million pounds, and David Hockney's "Arranged Felled Trees", which went for 3.4 million pounds, more than a million above its high estimate.
Although Bacon's standout painting failed to inspire bidders, two other works by the Irish-born British artist - a 1975 self-portrait and "Three studies for a Self-Portrait" - sold for 15.3 million pounds and 14.7 million pounds respectively.
"Four Eggs on a Plate", a 2002 work by Lucian Freud which he gifted to the late Duchess of Devonshire, saw the fiercest bidding of the night. It sold for 989,000 pounds, almost 10 times its pre-sale estimate.
(Editing by Alan Crosby)