Inside Wealth

Edward Hopper painting sets record with $40.5 million sale

Hopper painting beats estimates
Hopper painting beats estimates

Edward Hopper's famous portrait of economic hardship has just become the new symbol of unbridled wealth.

The American realist's 1934 painting, "East Wind Over Weehawken," sold Thursday for $40.5 million at Christie's sale of American art. That makes it the most expensive Hopper ever sold, beating the record $26.9 million for "Hotel Window." It also far exceeded its estimate, which called for the painting to sell for $22 million to $28 million.

The winning bid for the anonymous buyer was made by telephone.

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"Weehawken" depicts a desolate street corner in Depression-wracked Weehawken, N.J., with crooked electric poles and derelict front yards. One house has a "For Sale" sign out front, highlighting the housing bust of the period.

Edward Hopper’s “East Wind Over Weehawken”
Source: Christie’s

Collectors and gallerists said that aside from being a visual masterpiece, the painting resonates with buyers for its echoes of the current economic cycles of booms and busts.

The sale also highlights the flood of money pouring into the art market from the wealthy. With fortunes soaring on stock-market gains, and rich collectors looking for alternative stores of value, top-quality art in just about every category is breaking records. While the more folksy American art of the early 20th century has lagged behind edgier post-war and contemporary art, it's quickly catching up.

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Sotheby's this week sold Norman Rockwell's "Saying Grace" for more than $46 million, a record for any American art piece as well as for Rockwell. It sold for twice its presale estimate.

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The piece, which appeared as a popular cover image of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951, shows a Mennonite family praying at a restaurant.

—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.