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Feb. 9, 2007 

"I have no fucking clue why people buy the shit that they do," wailed one silver-tongued art-world insider in the face of the astonishing prices paid at both Sotheby's London and Christie's London for Impressionist, modern and (especially) contemporary art this week. The sentiment was certainly widespread, despite former Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving's simple solution to the mystery, recently quoted in the Guardian newspaper: "Art is money-sexy-social-climbing-fantastic!"

Tripping the new art fantastic began on Feb. 5, 2007, at Sotheby's London with the triumphant evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, which totaled £94,911,000 ($186,509,999). Of 98 lots offered, 75 sold, or 77 percent. Thirty lots sold for over £1 million and 47 for over $1 million. The exchange rate was £1 = $1.97.

Top lot was Chaim Soutine's L'Homme au Foulard Rouge (ca. 1921), which sold to an anonymous buyer for £8,756,000 ($17,206,416), well above the presale high estimate of £5,000,000 and a new auction record for the artist. The same painting had previously sold in 1997 for £1,541,500 ($2,544,570).

Art-market observers often note that few top works come to market these days, pushing up the prices for second-tier artists. Thus, the top ten at Sotheby's included new auction records for Raoul Dufy, whose La Foire aux Oignons (1907) sold for £4,052,000 ($7,962,585) -- though admittedly the work has an appealing Gauguinisme -- and Alfred Sisley, whose placid canalside scene Le Loing à Moret, en été (1891) sold for £2,932,000 ($5,761,673). The Dufy was from the collection of the late Charles R. Lachman, a founder of Revlon cosmetics.

Records were also set for Naum Gabo (£1,252,000 / $2,466,440), Wilhelm Lehmbruck (£1,140,000 / $2,240, 214) and Jacques Lipchitz (£1,050,400 / $2,069,288).

Sotheby's contemporary art sale on the evening of Feb. 7, billed as the most successful ever staged in Europe, totaled £45,762,000 ($90,224,359), above the presale high total estimate of £39.3 million. Of the 79 lots offered -- a relatively large number -- 64 sold, or 81 percent. Thirteen works sold for over £1 million, and 26 works for over $1 million. The exchange rate was £1 = $1.97.

The star lot was Peter Doig's White Canoe (1990-91), reportedly being sold by Charles Saatchi, which was knocked down for a phenomenal £5,732,00 ($11,301,211), well over the presale high estimate of £1,200,000. With a price like that, insiders think that the buyer must be Russian!

Other record prices were paid for Frank Auerbach (£1,924,000 / $3,793,358), Piero Manzoni (£1,700,000 / $3,351,720), Joseph Beuys (£389,600 / $767,512), Tim Noble & Sue Webster (£356,000 / $701,320), Jörg Immendorff (£288,000 / $567,360), Albert Oehlen (£264,000 / $520,080) and George Condo (£192,000 / $378,240).

The sale also set a new record for a photo at auction, when Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001) sold for £1,700,000 ($3,351,720). A Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild from 1961 -- a "plain red one," as one onlooker noted -- sold for £2,820,000 ($5,559,912), a new record for an abstraction by the artist.

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Christie's Feb. 6 evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, including the "Art of the Surreal," sold 101 of 126 lots, or 80 percent. The total was £89,684,000 ($175,870,324), which Christie's said was a "personal best" for the category in Europe. Twenty-six lots sold for over £1 million, and 46 lots sold for over $1 million. European buyers dominated, according to Christie's expert Jussi Pylkkänen, with nine of the top ten lots going to European clients, who snagged more than 71 percent of the lots overall. The exchange rate was £1 = $1.961 = €1.514.

Top lot was Fernand Léger's Les maisons dans les arbres (1914), a classic Cubist landscape, which sold for £6,292,000 ($12,338,612) well above its presale high estimate of £3,500,000. Other top lots included works by Amedeo Modigliani, René Magritte and Pablo Picasso.

Auction records were set for Giorgio Morandi (£1,028,000 / $2,015,908), Christian Schad (£636,000 / $1,247,196) and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen (£150,000 / $294,150).

Christie's postwar and contemporary evening sale on Feb. 8 totaled £70,429,200 ($138,393,378) -- the highest ever total for this category in Europe. Of 84 lots offered, 82 found buyers, or 98 percent. Sixteen works in the auction sold for over £1 million, and 30 sold for over $1 million. The exchange rate was £1 = $1.965 = €1.512.

Top lot was Francis Bacon's Pope painting, Study for Portrait II (1956), reportedly the property of Sophia Loren, which went for £14,020,000 ($27,549,300), above the presale auction estimate of £12,000,000 and a new world record for the artist at auction. The buyer was Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery.

Records were also set for a Mark Rothko painting on paper (£3,380,000 / $6,641,700), and Sigmar Polke (£2,708,000 / $5,321,220), Alberto Burri (£1,924,000 / $3,780,660), Anselm Kiefer (£1,812,000 / $3,560,000), Antonio Saura (£535,200 /$1,051,668), Hiroshi Sugimoto (£524,000 / $1,029,660), Keith Haring (£512,800 / $1,007,652), Dan Flavin (£412,000 / $809,580) and Michael Raedecker (£138,000 / $271,170).

Andy Warhol's luscious Brigitte Bardot (1974) sold for £5,396,000 ($10,603,140). Other top lots were works by Roy Lichtenstein and Cy Twombly.

According to Christie's auction expert Pilar Ordovas, the house "welcomed a significant number of new clients, the majority of whom were private international buyers." Christie's said that 23 percent of the buyers were from the UK, 40 percent were from Europe, 32 percent from the Americas and five percent from Asia.

The super prices should go right to the auction houses' bottom line. Both Christies and Sotheby's recently raised their buyer's premium to 20 percent on the first £250,000 and 12 per cent on the remainder. Previously, the 20 percent premium applied only to the first £100,000. Sotheby's stock, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, closed the week up $2, at $39.64.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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