Impressionist art draws strong prices at Sotheby’s $491 million auction

NEW YORK - Led by a $66 million (S$88 million) van Gogh and one of Monet's iconic water lilies which sold for $54 million, Impressionist art achieved strong prices on Tuesday as Sotheby's kicked off the spring auctions, taking in a total of $368 million.

With 65 lots up for bids, the auction house found buyers for 78 per cent of its offerings. The sale's total, which included Sotheby's commission of just over 12 per cent, exceeded the pre-sale estimate of about $260 million to $350 million.

It was its second-highest Impressionist and modern result ever. "What you saw tonight was a market that is healthy, that is efficient, and incredibly vibrant," said Simon Shaw, Sotheby's'worldwide co-head of Impressionist art.

Officials noted that half of the works in the sale had never before been auctioned, a testament to the appeal of art that is fresh to the market.

Three of the sale's top lots were snapped up by Asian collectors, reflecting an increasingly global, deep-pocketed pool of buyers who have been driving up prices for several years.

As expected, the sale was led by van Gogh's "L'Allee des Alyscamps," painted in 1888 during the artist's Arles period and just one month before he famously sliced off his ear.

Several bidders vied for the landscape, which soared far past Sotheby's'more than $40 million estimate before going to an unidentified Asian private collector.

David Norman, Sotheby's worldwide co-chair of Impressionist and modern art, observed that the "tremendous bidding power we see in the market right now" was evident in the fact that when the same painting was auctioned in 2003, "it struggled to make $12 million."

It was the highest price for a van Gogh since 1998.

Monet's 1905 oil "Nympheas," from his iconic lily pond series, beat the high estimate of $45 million. Five Monets fetched a total of $115 million, far exceeding an estimate of more than $78 million for six works. One failed to sell.

Other highlights included Picasso's "Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil," which fetched just under $30 million and doubled its estimate, and Giacometti's "Femme de Venise VI," a smaller-scale sculpture that went for $16.2 million, comfortably beating the $12 million high estimate.

The auctions continue next week when four sales spanning collecting categories will be held at Christie's and Sotheby's.

Art world eyes are especially trained on Christie's Monday sale, "Looking Forward to the Past." Works by Picasso and Giacometti are expected to set records, boasting pre-sale estimates of $130 million and $140 million respectively.