Fall auctions off to a limp start at Christie's

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fall art auctions began with a stumble on Tuesday, falling short of expectations despite conservative pricing that marked Christie’s modest sale of Impressionist and modern works.

"Tete de femme," by artist Pablo Picasso, which will be sold at auction at an estimated price between $7-10 million on November 3, 2009 by Christie's during the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale, is seen at a press preview in New York October 29, 2009. REUTERS/Chip East

Already vastly scaled down in both size and prices from a boom in art sales that came to a screeching halt a year ago, the auction totaled $65,674,000 including commissions, or just shy of the pre-sale low estimate.

Seventy percent of the 40 lots on offer found buyers.

Saying he would “try to make some sense of tonight’s sale,” Christie’s honorary chairman Christopher Burge declared “there was no obvious pattern.”

“We saw strength in all areas of the market,” said Burge, who served as auctioneer. But each of those segments -- Impressionist, modern, sculptures -- also saw works come up short on price and others go unsold.

Among those was the sale’s top-priced lot, Picasso’s “Tete de femme.” Estimated at $7 million to $10 million, it was taken off the block when no bids topped $6.4 million.

But a Degas pastel, “Danseuses,” achieved a strong price of $10,722,500, beating even its high estimate. Another highlight was Rodin’s “Le Baiser,” the iconic “kiss” bronze which fetched $6,354,500, or more than three times the high estimate.

Christie’s officials said non-U.S. buyers accounted for 71 percent of the total, an unusually lop-sided ratio.

Besides European and Asian buyers, 25 percent were classified as “other,” a grouping that includes Russian and Mideast collectors.

Conor Jordan, head of the Impressionist and modern art department, said the result indicated that staging major sales in the current climate is “still a work in progress.”

“We’re still in the process of recalibrating some of our estimates,” Jordan said.

Burge added that half of the works that found buyers sold for more than their estimates, which he expected would make sellers more confident about selling in the future.

Artists whose works achieved solid prices included Tamara De Lempicka, Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, whose “Nu dans la plaine de Rosas” sold for $4,002,500.

The auctions continue on Wednesday with Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern art.

Editing by Todd Eastham