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by Andrew Decker
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In its evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 2, 2010, Sotheby’s New York sold Amedeo Modigliani’s superb 1917 pin-up, Nu Assis Sur un Divan (La Belle Romaine), for $69 million, far above the $40 million presale estimate and a new auction record for the artist. The result is more than double the previous price for a Modigliani painting, $31.3 million paid for a portrait of the artist’s wife, Jeanne Hebuterne, in November 2004.

The Modigliani was one of four works that fetched over $15 million and contributed $133.61 million to the sale’s total of $227.56 million. The message is clear: Buyers will pay dearly for striking or important works of art, and they will pay well for fairly priced paintings and sculpture -- but they are quite content to leave the rest behind. "There were some very strong prices, obviously, said New York dealer David Nash of Mitchell Innes + Nash. In this sale, 15 of the 61 lots failed to sell, several not attracting a single bid.

The sold total was within Sotheby’s presale estimate, and the third consecutive increase in its New York high-end Imp-and-mod evening auction since the 2008 crash, up from $181 million in November 2009 and $195 million in May 2010. In economic circles, six consecutive quarters of improvement would signal a recovery.   

Bidding was global, according to Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern department, with buyers and bidders from Asia, Europe and two countries prominent enough to warrant their own mentions: Russia and the United States.

The market’s selectivity was illustrated by two works by Henri Matisse. A perfectly pleasant if uninspiring portrait of a manly woman, Titine Trovato en Robe Et Chapeau (1934) passed silently, drawing not a single bid against its presale estimate of $6 million-$8 million. The artist’s more alluring Danseuse dans la Fauteuil, Sol en Daimier (1942), a dreamy picture of a leggy dancer slunk low in a yellow chair against a checkerboard background, brought $20.8 million, eclipsing its estimate of $12 million-$18 million. The price came within a few bids of matching the $21.7 million the painting sold for at Sotheby's London in June 2007, in the market’s salad days.

The night’s second priciest lot was Claude Monet’s lush and exquisite Le Bassin Aux Nymphéas (1917-19), which fetched $24.7 million (est. $20 million-$30 million). It had previously sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1998 for $9.9 million. This time out, it was being put on the block for the benefit of Youngarts, a low-profile program of something called the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts that supports 17 to 18 year olds in the visual, literary and performing arts.

The same anonymous buyer, bidding by phone via Sotheby’s specialist Jennifer Brown, picked up Alfred Sisley’s Torse de l’Action Enchainée for $2.88 million, just above the presale low estimate of $2.5 million.

The seller of the Monet water lily painting, Lin Arison, wife of the late Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, was also auctioning off Modigliani’s sober 1917 portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne Wearing a Hat. The Arisons paid $3.5 million for the painting in 1996 and sold it for a heady $19.1 million this time around, considerably above the presale high estimate of $12 million. Proceeds of this lot also go to YoungArts.  

As was the case with several lots during the evening, bidding for Jeanne Hébuterne was conducted with all the speed and excitement of a Comintern meeting. Cut bids were frequently called during the evening, and Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer was largely obliging, sensitive to the international cast of bidders (usually on the phone) and grateful for the presence of the bids, however slowly given.

Several dealers were active in the room. Gary Zimet of French & Company in New York picked up a wonderful cast of Aristide Maillol’s Torse de l’Action Enchaineé for $2.99 million, a price about four times the $700,000 presale high estimate. New York dealer Jack Tilton bought a large, fully realized charcoal drawing by Matisse, Robe en Tulle Noir, Brodée (1940), for $902,500, in one of the evening’s more astute buys.

London dealer Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery acquired a Matisse bronze, Deux Negresses (ca. 1930) for $8.5 million, a work unusual for showing two figures; it had sold for $7.5 million in 2001. And writer Judd Tully identified London dealer James Roundell as the buyer of a wonderful oil sketch by August Macke, Badende Madchen (Girls Bathing), for $1.1 million.

But it was the record-setting Modigliani that buoyed the ultimately successful sale. Up until $48 million, four bidders were competing for it, all by phone, and Meyer kept the action going for a solid six minutes. "It’s a phenomenal painting," said New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi, "not something that you find often." Like other dealers who attended the sale, he felt the sale was solid and dismissed the unsold lots as works that "deserved to pass, but quality is bringing good results."

Christie’s New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art takes place tonight, Nov. 3, 2010.

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