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A Monet water lilies painting has sold for nearly $US43.8 million and a Kandinsky fetched an artist's record $US23 million ($NZ53.6 million) as Christie's kicked off the auction season with a sale that saw many mid-level works failing to find buyers.
"Nympheas," one of Monet's iconic water lilies from 1905, executed during his years at Giverny, had been estimated to sell for $US30 million to $US50 million, and just managed its middle range with a final price of $US43,762,500 including commission.
Wassily Kandinsky's "Studie fur Improvisation 8," meanwhile, hit the low end of its $US20 million to $US30 million estimate, and set a new auction record for the Russian artist. The vibrant work was being sold by Switzerland's Volkart Foundation.
But 30 percent of the 69 works on offer failed to sell when bids failed to reach the reserve, the secret price at which a client has agreed to sell a work.
In all the auction took in a total of just under $US205 million, missing the low pre-sale estimate of about $US210 million (estimates do not include commission charges of about 12 percent). The high estimate was about $US315 million.
Christie's nonetheless said it was pleased with the results.
"It was very, very strong sale, with great results" for top lots including the Monet, and a Brancusi sculpture "Une muse," which sold for $US12.4 million, said Brooke Lampley, head of Impressionist and modern art.
"Classic Impressionism performed really well tonight."
Lampley also noted that the sale's unusually high percentage of discretionary selling - when collectors decide to sell, versus estate sales that happen because the owner is deceased - was "very much a sign that collectors are feeling confident in the market. They are choosing to sell," which she said was a testament to the increasing strength of art as an asset class.
But the atmosphere in the room was muted and for works that sold, bidding was steady but far from unbridled. Bidders tried to cut increments in half from the next solicited bid, and the salesroom was more than half empty before the sale ended.
Officials privately attributed the relatively high percentage of works that failed to sell - nearly one third - chiefly to a single collection whose owner was unwilling to lower the reserve prices in the days leading up to the sale.
In all, six lots sold for more than $US10 million each. Other highlights included Miro's "Peinture (Femme, Journal, Chien), which went for $US13.75 million, and Picasso's "Buste de femme," and oil on canvas that at $US13 million was one of the few works to beat its pre-sale estimate handily.
Proceeds from the Monet sale will benefit a private prep school in Tarrytown, New York, which received the work in a bequest.
Two Giacometti sculptures, "La Jambe" and "Tete sur tige," fetched $US11.3 million and $US6.8 million respectively.
Among casualties were a Picasso sculpture, "Coq," estimated at $US10 million to $US15 million, and works by Chagall and Degas, the latter estimated to sell for as much as $US10 million.
The auctions continue tomorrow when Sotheby's holds its sale of Impressionist and modern art, which it postponed from Monday due to Superstorm Sandy which hit the region last week.