Flat result at NY season's first art auction

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist and modern art on Monday fell far short of expectations that were mostly set before the collapse of world financial markets but the sale did manage a $60 million top lot and set records for Degas and Munch.

Edgar Degas' Danseuse au repos is seen during a press preview at Sotheby's in New York October 29, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Officials said the $224 million total, including commission, was still among Sotheby’s best-ever for an Impressionist sale and proclaimed themselves satisfied with the result, which saw more than one-third of the 70 lots on offer go unsold.

Some $135 million of the auction’s total came from just three paintings: Kazimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition,” which sold for $60 million; Edvard Munch’s “Vampire” which soared to a record-setting $38.16 million; and Degas’ “Danseuse au repos,” which fetched $37 million, just shy of its $40 million estimate.

The sale’s official estimate was $338 million to $475 million.

“Anyone would expect people to be more circumspect in this environment,” said David Norman, co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art for Sotheby’s.

“We’re selling in a very uncertain world,” he said. “We knew we were going to be poised for a reconsideration of a large part of the market.”

Auction houses have been working with sellers in recent weeks to adjust their expectations and lower their reserves -- the minimum price at which they will sell at auction. Officials said that consignors who met the new pricing reality saw strong prices and competitive bidding.

“We will adjust and recalibrate our estimates in line with these results,” Norman said.

Noting the strong prices for top three lots, auctioneer Tobias Meyer commented that “great things sold incredibly well.” Other officials said the market for masterpieces was “very much alive,” citing the $60 million Malevich, which obliterated the artist’s old record of $17 million.

In cases where works by artists ranging from van Gogh and Cezanne to Matisse, Monet and Modigliani went unsold, officials blamed either sellers’ unrealistic pricing or the works’ suffering a sort of mid-market malaise, wherein true standouts such as the Munch or lower priced works proved more appealing.

The auctions continue on Wednesday with a stand-alone sale of two important private collections at Christie’s.

Editing by Bill Trott