Photo credit: Sotheby's
Reasonable people might ask why anyone would pay $28 million for a 2,000-pound Popeye.
Koons is the main reason. His orange "Balloon Dog" became the most expensive work sold by a living artist when it was auctioned for $58 million at Christie's last fall.
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Scarcity is another. Koons made only three versions of the 6½-foot tall muscle man. Megadealer Larry Gagosian owns one and hedge funder Steve Cohen owns the other.
But it turns out, Popeye also has a special place in pop art.
"Popeye represents the beginning and the end of pop art," said Alexander Rotter, co-head of contemporary art at Sotheby's. He points out that one of the first paintings by Andy Warhol was of Popeye and Roy Lichtenstein did a famous Popeye piece.
For Koons, Popeye was a boyhood hero. "There was something about the little guy that becomes giant," Rotter said.
Based on his prices, Koons has certainly followed Popeye's example.
—By CNBC's Robert Frank.