A painting of a one dollar bill can be bought in London next week. You will, however, need as much as $26m to buy it.
The work by Andy Warhol, Silver Certificate, is part of the most valuable contemporary art auction that has been staged in the capital.
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s will sell art with a pre-sale estimate of between £143.2m and £204.6m, including an important Pope painting by Francis Bacon and a significant number of works by living British artists such as Peter Doig, David Hockney, Paula Rego and Howard Hodgkin.
At Christie’s on Tuesday, the total estimate is lower (£82m-£117m) but a world record price for the artist is expected for a spectacular work by Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, which famously attracted the ire of the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who described it as “sick stuff” and tried to close down an exhibition featuring the work.
Contemporary art prices are unquestionably going through the roof, with a string of auction records for living artists in the past year.
Philip Hoffman, the chief executive of the Fine Art Fund Group, which specialises in art investment, said: “It is the most desirable market. It’s the most liquid market. It’s sexy, it’s easy to understand, you can read up on it quite fast, there’s not too much history involved.
“If you want to know about Matisse and Derain you’ve got to do a lot of reading. If you want to learn about Warhol you just have to know dollar bills and Marilyns and so on.”
Edmond Francey, the head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, said contemporary artists were exploring life today and collectors want that. He said: “I remember when I was young growing up in Paris, people loved the 18th century and nobody was collecting contemporary art. People now want to understand the world through the eye of the artist and there is a premium for contemporary art.”
Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in contemporary art, said the newer buyers were more engaged with the culture of our times. He said: “It’s interesting that the artists that have a resonance today are not the ones who had a resonance 10 years ago.”
The London sales come with an Atlantic tailwind of the dizzying record-breaking prices achieved at Christie’s in New York last month, including the $179.4m (£114m) paid for Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, making it the most expensive painting sold at auction.
Thirty minutes later a bidder – reportedly on behalf of the hedge fund billionaire Steven A Cohen – bought Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt for $141.3m, making it the most expensive sculpture sold at auction.
Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen said the evening was “probably the most exciting sale I’ve taken in my career, not just because of the Picasso and the Giacometti, but just because of the feel of the room.
“There were 10 world records with only 34 works. The most extraordinary thing was the number of people competing in the room who were coming from different parts of the collecting world to buy 20th-century paintings.”
The market is being fuelled by a growing number of people with the wealth and desire to buy new works. The newest millionaires and billionaires on the buying block are the Chinese, with both auction houses going to inordinate lengths to court them.
Hoffman said: “There are four or five wealthy Chinese families who are super interested in the top-end works. Van Gogh is on their radar, Monet, Picasso, Bacon, Warhol and a couple of others.”
What the rich billionaire particularly wants is art that is demonstrably desirable and fresh to the market, which is the case for the Ofili work. His black Madonna with an exposed breast and feet made from laquered elephant dung first came to public attention when it was shown at the Royal Academy of Art’s Sensation exhibition.
It was in the US that things really kicked off, when Giuliani declared: “The idea of, in the name of art, having a city subsidise art, so-called works of art, in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary, is sick.”
He threatened to remove funding from the Brooklyn Museum unless “the director comes to his senses”. It all helped bring record visitor numbers.
The 8ft-high work is one of a number being sold by the Tasmanian collector and professional gambler David Walsh to fund an extension of his Museum of Old and New Art to house a number of James Turrell works.
Other works being sold include Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Great Deeds against the Dead, with its horrific decapitated and genitalia-ripped fibreglass models, Jenny Saville’s Matrix and one of Damien Hirst’s early spin paintings, Beautiful mis-shapen purity clashing excitedly outwards painting (1995).
The biggest estimate for a painting in next week’s sales is Bacon’s Study for a Pope I (1961), which set an auction record for the artist when it last came to market in 2005, sold by the late playboy art collector Gunter Sachs. Back then, it sold for £5.8m, while the estimate today is £25m-35m – still some way short of the new Bacon record of £89.3m.
Speaking about Bacon, Barker said: “[He] speaks to the soul. He captured what it means to be human like no other artist that came before or after.
“His portraits are sought by collectors from all corners of the globe because they express something universal, exploring the deepest psychological depths of the human mind.”