Sotheby's London auction hits target at $55 million

LONDON (Reuters) - Sotheby’s auction of impressionist and modern art raised 33.5 million pounds ($55.1 million) Wednesday, comfortably within the pre-sale estimates of 26.8-37.3 million pounds.

The auction, including a painting by Pablo Picasso when he was in his late 80s, was the second of four major sales in London this week and next that will provide fresh clues about how a once-booming art market is faring in the recession.

The final auction tallies include buyer’s premium, but the pre-sale estimates do not.

While soaring values have fallen significantly in recent months, they have not collapsed.

The main problem for auction houses like Sotheby’s and rival Christie’s is the sharp drop in the number of high-quality works sellers are willing to offer at auction during the economic downturn.

At the corresponding sale last year, Sotheby’s realized 102.2 million pounds.

“Tonight’s auction saw strong prices achieved across the board and this is a very positive message for the market,” said Melanie Clore, co-chairman of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’ worldwide.

“This evening we’ve seen once again that there is still a very healthy ongoing market for great impressionist and modern works of art.”

The top lot on the night was Picasso’s “Homme a l’epee,” which fetched 7.0 million pounds, within estimates of 6-8 million.

It won the battle of the two Musketeers, after rival auction house Christie’s sold another Picasso of the same subject and from the same period for 5.8 million pounds Tuesday, also within estimates.

Another Picasso entitled “Nu debout” from 1968 fetched 4.3 million pounds, above its target of 3-4 million pounds.

Tuesday, Christie’s, the world’s largest auctioneer, sold art worth 37.1 million pounds, just shy of the lower end of expectations. Christie’s raised 144.4 million pounds at the same auction last year, although the total included four collections.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Matthew Jones