By Judd Tully, May 5, 2011

NEW YORK— Thanks to some audacious estimates pegged to choice lots at Christie's $156 million Impressionist and Modern evening sale on Wednesday, the relatively unexciting lineup delivered some satisfying moments of high-stakes bidding drama.

Forty-seven of the 57 lots offered sold for a crisp buy-in rate of 18 percent by lot and 19 percent by value. Nineteen of those works made over a million dollars, four made over $5 million, and three exceeded $20 million.

The tally, including the inclusive buyer's premiums, trailed the presale estimate of $162.3-231.8 million, which doesn't reflect the

juicy buyer's premium. Though the auction houses always trumpet the premium-added result against presale estimates, the overall hammer price for the 47 lots that sold achieved $136,485,000.

Still, two impressive artist records were set, including a high mark for Maurice Vlaminck's luscious Fauve work "Paysage de Banlieu" from 1905 that sold to New York's Acquavella LLC for $22,482,500 (est. $18-25 million). Christie's gamble with an aggressive estimate paid off: the work doubled the previous Vlaminck record of $10,756,419, set in March 1990 at a Paris auction house for "Les Pecheurs a Nanterre," a 1905-06 painting from the acclaimed Madame Bourdon collection.

Tonight's Vlaminck belonged to hedge-fund titan and supercollector Steve Cohen, who bought the painting at Christie's New York in May 1994 for $6,822,500. That handsome return may not be judged up to snuff in the hedgie world, but it can still turn heads in the art market.

(And there's no irony lost in the fact that Cohen has held significant shares in Sotheby's stock, Christie’s historic arch-rival.)

New York private dealer and former Christie's Impressionist head Guy Bennett underbid the piece to Christie's New York current Impressionist/Modern head Conor Jordan, who pursued the painting on behalf of Acquavella. Bidding opened at $13 million and quickly charged higher at $1 million jumps, than tamed down to $500,000 increments before finally see-sawing between $100,000 and $200,000 raises, as if the bidders were playing a kind of manic cat-and-mouse game. 

"They took big risks, and it paid off," observed Emmanuel DiDonna of New York's Blain DiDonna gallery (and a former specialist at Sotheby's).

The other record went to the decidedly lesser-known Maximilien Luce and his 1900 masterwork "Notre-Dame de Paris" that sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a whopping $4,226,500 (Est. $2-3 million). The 45-¼-by-32-inch canvas smashed the previous $2,840,000 high set by "La Seine au Pont Saint-Michel" from the same year at Christie's New York in May 2007, arguably the height of the last art boom.

Christie's cover lot, Claude Monet's graceful and light-dappled "Les Peupliers" from 1891, was the cause of another telephone duel, sadly lessening the excitement in the salesroom itself. It went to Conor Jordan's bidder at $22,482,500 (est. $20-30 million), the same price as the Vlaminck. The underbidder was an Asian client bidding through Ken Yeh, chairman of Christie's Asia. "Les Peupliers" last sold at Christie's New York in November 2000 for $7,046,000.

Pablo Picasso, meanwhile, took three of the top ten lots, led by the late grisaille single-figure "Les Femmes d'Alger, Version L" from 1955, which sold to a telephone bidder for $15,762,500 (est. $20-30 million), eluding underbidders David Nahmad and Larry Gagosian. As with a handful of the top lots, initial interest seemed hesitant and possibly insufficient to meet a reserve, though each time it seemed auctioneer Christopher Burge, still the best in the business, extracted key bids to get the bidding mojo working.

The rare Picasso was once owned by storied New York collectors Victor and Sally Ganz, who bought the entire 15-work series inspired by Eugene Delacroix's famous painting for $212,000 in 1956.

Picasso's unique steel–cutout-and-black-crayon-drawn 1961 sculpture “Homme au Mouton" showed off the hunger for three-dimensional works, selling to another telephone bidder for $7,138,500 (est. $4-6 million), trailed again by underbidder Larry Gagosian.

The taste for modern sculpture crossed high and low price points as Barbara Hepworth's "Menhirs," a unique 1964 piece carved in teak, sold to London dealer Thomas Gibson for $1,082,500 (est. $900,000-1.5 million), while Auguste Rodin's bronze "Eternel Printemps, Premier Etat, Taille Orginale-Variant Type C," a lifetime cast from 1884, fetched $2,770,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). It last sold at Christie's New York in November 2002 for $757,500.

It would be a treat to see how high the current market would reach for a great work, given the high prices for barely-top-class examples, as evidenced by the pretty and sketchy Henri Matisse, a sunny interior titled "La Fenetre Ouverte" that was painted in Collioure in 1911 in oil over pencil on canvas, and which sold to another telephone shopper for $15,762,500 (est. $8-12 million).

Surrealism was also on the ascendant, as was the case at Sotheby's on Tuesday evening, and Max Ernst's jungle-like habitat "La Joie de Vivre" from 1936 sold to New York dealer John Cavaliero for $902,500 (est. $500-800,000). Cavaliero also snagged Joan Miro's bawdy gouache-and-pencil-on-cardboard 1938 scene "Le Numero de Music-Hall" for $458,500 (est. $300-400,000).

Buttonholed about the Ernst, Cavaliero explained he had worked with the artist's estate for 23 years and found this example "a wonderful composition, with rich colors and a very good subject," said the dealer. "It's also rare." He's in no hurry to resell it, he said.

Christie's suffered some pricey buy-ins that hurt its overall stats, including Monet's unfortunately over-shopped "Iris Mauves" from 1914-17, which went nowhere against a $15-20 million estimate (it last sold at Christie's New York in May 1997 for $3,852,500), and a once-Nazi-looted Paul Cezanne landscape, "Vue sur l'Estaque" from 1882-83, which bombed at an imaginary $4.2 million against at $6-8 million estimate. But overall the house pulled off a fine sale.

It didn't hurt that Hollywood leading man Leonardo DiCaprio was watching the action disguised in a baseball cap and hoodie, seated next to Helly Nahmad throughout the proceedings, as if at center court at a Knicks' game.

"I think the market is strong for good material," said San Francisco dealerRowland Weinstein, who snared two Surrealist works, Yves Tanguy's "Entends Tu" from 1937 for $2,098,500 (est. $1-1,5 million) and Paul Delvaux's "Le Passage a Niveau," a 48-by-48-inch cityscape composition from 1961 for $1,538,500 (est. $600-800,0000).

"Everything I bid on tonight went over its estimate," Weinstein noted.

The evening excitement resumes on Monday with contemporary art at Sotheby's, featuring a single-owner sale from the estate of maverick art dealer and collector Allan Stone.

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