Christie's art auction falls short of estimate

NEW YORK Thu May 5, 2011 6:24am EDT

A Christie's employee poses with artist Pablo Picasso's ''Les Femmes d'Alger'' at Christie's auction house in London April 15, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

A Christie's employee poses with artist Pablo Picasso's ''Les Femmes d'Alger'' at Christie's auction house in London April 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Works by Monet, Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck each sold for more than $20 million on Wednesday at a Christie's auction which totalled $156 million, just shy of the low pre-sale estimate for the offering of Impressionist and modern art.

That came on the heels of a similar result on Tuesday at rival Sotheby's, which just beat the minimum expectation.

Christie's officials said they were satisfied with the sale, which saw nearly half the 47 works sold snapped up by European buyers. Ten lots, or 18 percent, went unsold.

"Generally, it was a very consistent evening" which "showed the continuing strength of a market for quality pictures," said Christie's honorary chairman, Christopher Burge, who also served as auctioneer.

"There was for the most part a lot of bidding," he added.

But some of those bidders played hardball, notably for pieces priced above $15 million, negotiating bidding increments down from the typical $500,000 to as small as $100,000.

Auction officials have spoken of the difficulty of assembling sales this season following a year of surprisingly buoyant results that saw prices recover from recessionary lows, enhancing the appeal of fine art as an investment.

But Conor Jordan, Christie's Impressionist and modern department head, said the sale evidenced a "depth of demand at many price points ... and across the collecting categories."

Among the highlights, De Vlaminck's "Paysage de banlieue" smashed the artist's record of $10.76 million, and along with Monet's "Les Peupliers" was the top-priced lot. Each fetched $22.5 million, including the auction house's commission.

Picasso's "Les femmes d'Alger, version L" sold for $21.4 million, well below the high estimate of $30 million.

Matisse's "La fenetre ouverte" was a big success, soaring to $15.76 million against an estimate of $10-12 million.

A new record was also set for Maximilien Luce.

Among significant casualties was Monet's "Iris mauves," which was estimated at $15-20 million but went unsold when no bids above $12.5 million could be solicited.

The auctions continue next week when Sotheby's and Christie's, as well as Phillips de Pury, hold their contemporary and post-war sales. (Editing by Todd Eastham)