Third wobbly night for Impressionist art auctions

By Christopher Michaud
NEW YORK, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Impressionist and modern art stumbled again on Thursday when Christie's $147 million auction fell well short of estimates, most of which were set before the crisis gripping world financial markets.
Seeking to put a positive spin on the result, Christie's honorary chairman Christopher Burge noted that its "$200 million (over two nights) in this climate of financial turmoil" indicated "there is still a great deal of money left for the art market."
The auction was the third this week to fall below expectations, starting with an auction at rival Sotheby's (BID.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) on Monday followed by Christie's "Modern Age" sale on Wednesday.
While Thursday's auction did see some high points, notably Juan Gris' "Livre, pipe et verres" which fetched $20.8 million, beating its high estimate and breaking the artist's record, Burge said the outcome was "obviously a reduced level, and we have to recognize that."
Christie's sale moved 56 percent of the 82 lots on offer, falling some $100 million short of its low pre-sale estimate.
"Obviously in the future we will have to lower estimates," said Burge, who also served as auctioneer.
But he contrasted the fall-off with the last one in 1991, when art prices plummeted during a weak economy. This time, he said, all types of markets were feeling the heat.
The auction houses have been working with sellers in recent weeks to adjust their expectations and lower their reserves -- the secret minimum price at which they will sell.
In cases where works were bid to just below the low estimates and still went unsold, Burge explained the consignors were "happy to hold onto their works" if they could not get their price.
But two Picassos that were among the top-estimated lots at $15 million to $20 million, and $10 million to $15 million, went unsold when no one bid even remotely near the low estimates.
Bargain hunters scored some good buys including an Henri Fantin-Latour painting of a basket of dahlias that sold for about half its $1.5 million estimate.
Strong prices were achieved for a few works, including Picasso's "Deux personnages," which sold for $18 million and met its low estimate, and Kandinsky's "Studie zu Improvisation 3," which beat its low estimate and fetched $16.9 million including Christie's commission.
Works by Caillebotte and Cezanne also fell within their estimate range, fetching $8.5 million and $7.9 million respectively.
The auctions continue next week when Sotheby's and Christie's hold their contemporary and post-war art sales. The biggest price spikes in the art world have come in that market, which analysts said could leave it even more vulnerable to a correction.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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