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by Andrew Decker
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Christie’s New York tested the capacity of the art market with a seemingly endless sale -- 84 lots, when 60 is already on the large size -- of Impressionist and modern artworks on the evening of Nov. 3, 2010. The results were just fine: two record prices, a robust $231.4 million total, and 67 of the 84 lots selling for a sell-through rate of 80 percent.

Christie’s success was all the more remarkable for the lack of major works by Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir and Pablo Picasso, the heavyweights who usually dominate the headlines. Even the record-setting Henri Matisse was not a painting but a sculpture.

The handful of interesting or exceptional works in the massive sale (which featured an equally massive 343-page catalogue) did extremely well, providing still more evidence of the ever-present collector wealth and hunger for quality. Buyers were 45 percent U.S., 31 percent European, six percent Asian, and 18 percent the odd catch-all "other," a group that includes clients of uncertain nationality.

Strong or refreshingly unusual works spurred strong bidding. Matisse’s life-sized relief Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV), conceived ca. 1930 and only cast in 1978, is one of the last remaining examples in private hands from the series famously on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Estimated at $25 million-$35 million, the sculpture sold to superdealer Larry Gagosian for $48.8 million, a record for a work by the artist, with long-time sculpture fan Robert Mnuchin, proprietor of L&M Arts, one of the underbidders. The previous record had been $45.9 million, paid in 2009 for the still-life painting Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose (1911). According to a knowledgeable source, Gagosian’s client for the purchase is Steven A. Cohen.

Another notable sculpture in the sale included a 1956 cast of Alberto Giacometti’s Femme de Venise V, one of the artist’s iconic images, which brought $10.3 million from an anonymous private buyer. It was estimated at $8 million-$12 million.

The evening’s second top lot was Juan GrisViolon et guitare (1913), a richly colored work from perhaps the artist’s best period. It sold by phone to an anonymous European private collector for $28.6 million, just over the presale high estimate of $25 million and substantially surpassing the artist’s record of $20.8 million.

The auction featured a number of exceptional drawings, including Georges Seurat’s wonderfully atmospheric and chiaroscuro Conté crayon work, La Promenade (ca. 1882), which fetched $3.3 million (est. $1.5 million-$2.5 million). Egon Schiele's steamy Mann und Frau (Umarmung) (est. $4 million-$6 million) from 1917 sparked great interest, ultimately selling to Mnuchin for $7.4 million.

Edvard Munch’s 1902 print, Madonna, was one of nine works from the estate of computer technology pioneer Max Palevsky. It soared past its $700,000 presale high estimate to sell at $1.2 million, perhaps vindicating Christie’s decision to include a lithograph in an Imp & mod evening sale for the first time.

Buyers included Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery in London, who won Henry Moore’s 1952 Maquette for King and Queen for $2.9 million (est. $1.5 million-$2 million) and Joan Miró’s colorful L'Air (1938) for a modest $10.3 million (est. $12 million-$18 million).

Fernand Léger’s poster-perfect 1921 La Tasse de Thé, from the Palevsky estate, sold for $8.1 million, just at its presale low estimate, to London dealer Timothy Taylor, according to writer Judd Tully. As a group, the nine Palevsky works brought $23.5 million against a presale low estimate of $23.1 million. London and New York dealer Daniella Luxembourg paid $6.4 million for Léger’s 1927 Femme sur Fond Roughe, Femme Assise, also from the Palevsky estate; he had bought it in 1993 for $937,500.

New York dealer Maxwell Davidson IV bought Vassily Kandinsky’s 1927 Rosa Rot for $1.4 million, in the middle of its presale estimate, and Picasso’s 1903 Le Guitariste for $818,500 (est. $500,000-$700,000).

The two evening sales of Impressionist and modern art, at Sotheby’s (61 lots) and Christie’s (85 lots), totaled together $459 million, with 22.1 percent of the lots remaining unsold. Not bad.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

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

ANDREW DECKER is a communications consultant for cultural organizations and businesses