Christie's sale of Impressionists, moderns solid

NEW YORK Thu May 7, 2009 9:12am EDT

Picasso's ''Musketeer with pipe,'' is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Christie's/Handout

Picasso's ''Musketeer with pipe,'' is seen in this undated handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/Christie's/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Impressionist and modern art sold well at Christie's on Wednesday at an auction that met expectations and provided a measure of relief to a tense art market battered by the global financial crisis.

That relief was palpable when applause broke out in Christie's salesroom after the hammer fell on the final lot of the sale, which took in nearly $103 million, safely above the low pre-sale estimate of $88 million.

Officials at both Christie's and rival Sotheby's have said convincing collectors to sell when art prices are falling was especially difficult, resulting in the season's vastly scaled-down auctions.

But Christie's did what it set out to do, selling 80 percent of the 48 lots on offer, including Picasso's "Musketeer with pipe," a 1968 oil on canvas that fetched $14,642,500, or right in the middle of its pre-sale estimate range.

Officials said the work had sold for $7.3 million in 2004, a sign that prices are holding up when the right work is offered.

"It was a remarkable result for this material at this time," said Christie's honorary chairman Christopher Burge, who also served as auctioneer.

"We were honestly quite surprised by the depth of the competition," Burge added, citing strong prices for Impressionist as well as 20th-century works at all price levels.

Works by Monet, Renoir and Pissarro sold well at Sotheby's on Tuesday, but the top lots, a Picasso and a Giacometti, went unsold leaving the total well short of its estimate.

Christie's president Marc Porter said new bidders were especially encouraging.

"We saw a lot of new buyers tonight who were ready to compete for things," he told Reuters. The bidding process helped drive prices higher than those of recent private sales, he said.

Buyers were about evenly divided between Americans and Europeans, with Asian clients accounting for more than usual.

Highlights included Giacometti's "Bust of Diego," a bronze that sold for $7.7 million, beating its high estimate, and Degas' "Apres le bain, femme s'essuyant," which went for $5.9 million, just under the high estimate.

Works by Tamara de Lempicka sold well for the second consecutive night, with "Portrait of Madame M." selling for $6.13 million, breaking the artist's auction record set on Tuesday.

The auctions continue next week with sales of contemporary and post-war art, a market segment that has witnessed the greatest price spikes in the past decade and which could be especially vulnerable.

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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