A large-scale abstract painting by Mark Rothko sparked a bidding war in New York Tuesday night, ultimately soaring to a final price of $75.1 million US and helping Sotheby's set a new auction house record.

The abstract expressionist's 1954 painting No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) — described by the auction house as "a seminal, large-scale masterpiece" — quickly rocketed past its pre-sale estimate of $35 million to $50 million (all prices in US dollars) due to rapid bidding from a handful of eager buyers.

The final price achieved for the warm, tropical coloured block canvas was a whopping $75.12 million.

Held in the same private collection for the past 30 years, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) is one of eight works Rothko chose to display in Chicago in 1954 for his first solo exhibition at a major U.S. gallery.

Six of these eight works are held by Rothko's family. Aside from the artwork sold Tuesday night, the final painting remains in a private collection.

Despite the high price, Tuesday's sale fell short of the record $86.9 million paid for Rothko's 1961 painting Orange, Red, Yellow at a Christie's auction in May.

Pieces by other post-war and contemporary artists also fetched lofty prices. For instance, a classic Jackson Pollock drip painting — simply called Number 4, 1951 — set a new artist record, selling for $40.4 million.

Other highlights included:

  • Strong prices for Andy Warhol's works, such as $15.2 million for the acrylic and ink on canvas work Green Disaster and $16.32 million for the silkscreen print on paper Suicide.
  • British artist Francis Bacon's Untitled (Pope), which sold for $29.76 million.
  • Abstraction, a Willem de Kooning painting from 1949, fetched $19.68 million.
  • German artist Gerhard Richter's Abstract Painting, which sold for $17.44 million.

Altogether, Tuesday's event marked Sotheby's most successful auction ever, with the $375-million total surpassing all sales in the venerable company's history.

"If you want to talk about the market being happy, healthy and well, here it is," Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, told press. "That's probably about as good as it gets."

Sotheby's continues its sale on Wednesday, while rival house Christie's also has its post-war and contemporary auction this week.

The Canadian auction season gets underway next week.