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Monet leads art market back to steadier ground

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

LONDON — Confidence in the market for Impressionist and modern art was boosted on Wednesday in London as a $164 million auction beat its high estimate, helped by Claude Monet's painting of a Venetian palazzo.

“Le Palais Contarini,” dating from 1908, sold for $30.5 million at Sotheby's, becoming another profitable investment for its seller, the Nahmad family of dealers.

The evening's $163.89 million total with fees beat the $ 99.2 million raised the previous night at Christie's International, which had prompted dealers to question whether the houses should continue to hold four Impressionist and modern evening sales in New York and London each year.

“Sotheby's had better material that was fresh to the market,” said Fotini Xydas, adviser in Impressionist and modern art at Citibank, N.A. “They had works from collections with reasonable estimates that made bidding competitive. Prices were solid and measured.”

The Monet, entered by the Nahmad family of dealers, attracted four telephone bidders, as well as an “irrevocable” bid from a third party guarantor. Purchased at auction in 1996 for $4.2 million, it had been estimated at $23.2 million to $31 million.

The painting had been entered by the Nahmads, who also consigned the two top lots at Christie's, persons with knowledge of the matter said.

The auction began with 28 pieces formerly owned by the late Swiss entrepreneur, Branco Weiss, which raised $24.6 million for medical research. These were followed by six Picasso drawings consigned from the estate of the U.S. collector, the late Stanley J. Seeger, which fetched $9.75 million.

Pick of these lots was a 1971 Picasso drawing, “Etreinte.” This chalk depiction of lovers triggered a bidding battle between two telephone bidders. The work was sold to a client represented by Sotheby's Italian-based specialist Claudia Dwek for $4.7 million, underbid by an Asian collector, against a low estimate of $2.3 million.

“It was a red, sexy drawing,” said Morgan Long, head of investment at the London-based Fine Art Fund. “It was a classic Picasso to hang on your wall.”

Piet Mondrian's 1927 “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue,” estimated at $6.9 million to $10 million, had not been seen at auction market since 1990. It drew competition from four phone bidders before falling to a client represented by Sotheby's New York-based David Norman for $14.3 million.

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