Buyers cool to private-collection art at Christie's

Edouard Manet's Fillette sur un banc,1880, is seen at Christie's in New York October 30, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Top works went unsold and prices were off for art that found buyers on Wednesday at Christie’s auction of two prestigious private collections.

Achieving less than half its low pre-sale estimate of $102 million (64.5 million pounds), the “Modern Age” auction of mostly late 19th and early to mid-20th century pieces managed to move 71 percent of the 58 lots on offer, but most works fell short of the low estimates.

Taken with Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist and modern art on Monday, which while buoyed by a $60 million Malevich and a new Degas record, fell $110 million short of its low estimate, the Christie’s $47 million total was another sign the days of ever-increasing art prices have come to an abrupt end, at least for the time being.

Although the auction houses have been working with sellers in recent weeks to lower their expectations and lower their reserves -- the minimum price at which they will sell -- the evening’s two top lots failed to sell, including Mark Rothko’s “No. 43 (Mauve),” which had been expected to fetch $20 million to $30 million. The other work that failed to sell was Manet’s “Fillette sur un banc.”

Citing “a difficult economic climate,” Christie’s President Marc Porter pointed to a few records set for lower-valued works, including a Magritte work on paper, “demonstrating that collectors continue to take advantage of the appearance on the market of desirable works of art.”

Still, there was no denying the muted atmosphere in the salesroom. If there was any upside, the lower prices could draw back into the art market collectors who had been priced out. One bidder paid $400,000 for a Toulouse-Lautrec estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, not including commission.

Christie’s opted to offer the two private collections in a stand-alone sale, before its Impressionist and modern art auction to be held on Thursday. A clearer picture of the market’s immediate fate could emerge after that sale.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s will hold their postwar and contemporary art auctions next week.

Writing by Christopher Michaud; Editing by Peter Cooney