Christie's stages record art sale

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Christie’s fall sale of Impressionist and modern art lived up to its billing as the biggest auction in history, led by a group of four Nazi-looted Klimts restored to their rightful heirs that raked in nearly $200 million (105 million pounds).

Christie's auction house auctioneer Christopher Burge (R) takes bids on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's painting 'Berliner Strasserszene' during a sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie's in New York, November 8, 2006. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The Klimts included a portrait that fetched the third-highest auction price ever, while new records were also set for Gauguin, Schiele and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at the $491,472,000 sale.

In the end, however, the night belonged to Klimt, and to Maria Altmann, a Los Angeles nonagenarian and the niece of the Austrian couple Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer who lost the works to the Nazis.

The four paintings, led by the portrait “Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” fetched a total of $192.7 million including Christie’s commission -- double the expectations for the works by the Austrian artist which had never been offered on the open market.

“Adele Bloch-Bauer II” alone went for just under $88 million, becoming the third-highest priced piece of art at auction. Last summer Manhattan’s Neue Galerie obtained “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for a reported $135 million, at the time the top known price in history for a work of art.

“The results were completely phenomenal, and beyond our wildest expectations,” said Christopher Burge, Christie’s honorary chairman and the sale’s auctioneer. “Everything, at every level. It was just extraordinary across the board. I’ve never seen a sale like this,” he said, quipping that the frenzied bidding had him feeling like “a performing seal for 2-1/2 hours.”

The total was some $200 million higher than any previous single event, Christie’s said. Only six of 84 lots on offer went unsold.

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It almost didn’t matter that one of the star lots, Picasso’s $50 million Blue Period portrait of Angel Fernandez do Soto, was yanked by Andrew Lloyd Webber after an 11th-hour claim and litigation over its rightful title.

The composer decided not to sell the work, the proceeds of which had been earmarked for charity, without a clear title, Christie’s said earlier on Wednesday. But auction officials said they were confident they could resolve the matter in “short order” and would be able to sell it on behalf of Lloyd Webber’s foundation as planned.


Maria Altmann, who will share the proceeds with her children and grandchildren, told reporters beforehand that she hoped at least some of the works would end up on museum walls or other public display.

“My family and I are delighted to see these treasured paintings find new homes,” she said in a statement after the sale in which she called the restitution “a landmark case.” And noting that her aunt and uncle had taken great joy in owning the paintings some 70 years ago, Altmann added, “We trust the new owners will build on this tradition of appreciation.”

With all the hoopla over the Klimts, Gauguin’s early Tahiti painting “Man With an Ax” was somewhat overshadowed, despite setting a record for the artist when it sold for $40,336,000, right in the middle of its pre-sale estimate. That was the same price paid for Klimt’s “Birch Forest,” a 1903 work that carried a much lower estimate of $20 million to $30 million.

Another Nazi-looted work restituted to the rightful heirs and sold on Wednesday was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene,” which soared to $38.1 million or more than twice the low estimate, making it the sale’s fourth-highest priced work. Bought anonymously for the collection of the Neue Galerie, it also smashed the artist’s previous record of $8.78 million.

The two other Klimts -- “Apple Tree I” and “Houses in Unterach on the Attersee” -- fetched $33 million and $31.4 million respectively, while Schiele’s “Single Houses” sold for $22.4 million, just beating the artist’s old mark. Records were also set for Bonnard and Balthus.

Christie’s President Marc Porter said the amazing prices attained by the Klimts gave testimony to the importance of the restitution issue, in that works such as those pursued so energetically on Wednesday were in pristine condition and totally new to the open market, having been hanging on museum walls since the 1940s.

The auction’s result, he told Reuters, was evidence that “putting reasonable estimates on works that are fresh to the market is just paying off in unimaginable ways.”