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Impressionist and Modern auction report: Mid-market pictures in demand

Collectors respond as prices drop to 2005-6 level

Vibrant canvases by Maurice de Vlaminck and David Burliuk were in demand at Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York impressionist and modern sales last month, which brought in $5.3m. The auctions, focusing on work priced below $100,000, demonstrated that demand for middle-market material, at reduced prices, will find buyers.

“We thought it was not going to be as good as it was,” said Alexander Kahan, a Madison Avenue dealer. “There are still buyers.” The total was nearly half the $9.4m made last year, before the banking crisis hit.

“This was the first wave of sales where estimates had been adjusted appropriately,” said Stefany Sekara, head of sales at Christie’s. “People called to say: ‘You have some great work, and the estimates feel right.’”

Christie’s 11 February sale totalled $1.8m, with 77% of the 137 lots on offer sold. A heavy impasto red and cream de Vlaminck still-life, Bouquet de Fleurs, date unknown, was the top lot, fetching $194,500 (est $40,000-$60,000). The buyer was an unnamed US dealer. The estimate might have been $20,000 higher a year ago, according to Ms Sekara, but the lower estimates proved honey to bargain-seeking buyers.

Buyers came from both trade and private ranks, mostly from the US, according to Ms Sekara, along with Europeans, South Americans and Russians.

Of the lots that failed to sell, Vietnamese painter Le Pho, known for pastel florals, appears to have fallen out of favour. His three paintings at Christie’s failed to sell. The cover lot, a 1932 cubist still-life by Ismael de la Serna, Nature Morte Au Violon, also failed to find a buyer. Estimated at $50,000-$70,000, the painting had sold for $49,600 at Christie’s in Paris in 2006. Ms Sekara said it might have sold if the estimate had been “one notch lower”.

Sotheby’s 12 February sale totalled $3.5m, with 74% of the 234 lots finding a buyer.

“Buyers who had stepped away are coming back,” said Sotheby’s senior vice president Jennifer Roth. “Collectors sense that prices are coming down.” She used 2005-06 prices as a guide, reducing estimates by 20% from last year.

Three Rodin bronzes appeared among the top ten lots sold, including the 1957-cast Celle Qui Fut La Belle Heaulmière which fetched $170,500, topping the $40,000 high estimate. The buyer was an unidentified UK dealer.

French painter Jean-Pierre Cassigneul delivered a strong performance. At Sotheby’s, Aude à L’Hortensia, 2006, sold for $74,500, just above the high estimate. At Christie’s the 1960s psychedelic gamine Femme Nue sold for $188,500, topping a $50,000-$70,000 estimate, to a private Latin American collector who declined to give her name.

“He’s been going up steadily,” said Ms Roth. “Think of him as an exponent of chic-ness and style. If you can’t afford a Van Dongen, you are getting a lot of punch and style on a canvas.”

Sotheby’s sale included a large section of Russian artworks which drew heated bidding from private US clients on the phones and Russian dealers clustered in the front of the salesroom. Landscapes by the Ukrainian David Burliuk were among the most sought after.