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LONDON (Reuters) - A Monet water-lily painting sold for 41 million pounds ($80.5 million) Tuesday, doubling the previous auction record for the artist and ensuring London's key art market season got off to a flying start.
"Le Bassin aux Nympheas" had been expected to fetch 18-24 million pounds, but after an intense bidding battle it smashed the previous Monet auction record of $41.5 million set in May.
It was part of the evening sale of impressionist and modern art at Christie's which raised 144 million pounds ($283 million), the highest total for an auction in Europe. All figures include buyers' premiums.
Olivier Camu, head of impressionist and modern art at Christie's in London, said the sale "illustrates the continuing strength and confidence of the art market."
Some experts have predicted a correction or even collapse in values due to deepening economic gloom caused by falling stocks, rising oil prices and the mortgage meltdown.
Christie's, its main rival Sotheby's and other London auction houses hold a series of sales of modern and contemporary art over the next 10 days during which works worth more than $1 billion will go under the hammer.
Elsewhere in the evening sale, a pastel picture by Degas sold for 13.5 million pounds ($26.5 million), well above its pre-sale estimate of around 5 million and the second highest price paid for the artist at auction.
Looking ahead, Christie's holds its main post-war and contemporary art sale Monday featuring "Naked Portrait With Reflection" by British artist Lucian Freud, which is expected to fetch 10-15 million pounds ($19 million - $29 million).
The 85-year-old artist shattered the world auction record for a living artist in May when "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" sold for $33.6 million in New York.
Media reports said the buyer of the Freud was Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, underlining his country's growing importance in the art market along with the Middle East and Asia.
The owner of Chelsea Football Club was also reported to have bought Francis Bacon's "Triptych, 1976" for $86 million, another auction record, this time for post-war art.
Monday, Christie's expects Bacon's "Three Studies for Self-Portrait" to sell for more than 10 million pounds ($19 million), and a Jeff Koons sculpture called "Balloon Flower (Magenta)" to make about 12 million pounds ($24 million).
Overall the auction house is selling art estimated to be worth up to 300 million pounds ($589 million).
Sotheby's is offering over 200 million pounds' ($393 million) worth of art, including two more Bacons -- "Figure Turning," estimated at 10-15 million pounds ($19 million - $29 million) and "Study For Head of George Dyer" (8 million pounds or $16 million).
At the same auction next Tuesday, the company is offering a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting owned by Irish rock group U2 and estimated at 4-6 million pounds ($8 - $12 million).
To coincide with the Wimbledon tennis championship, former champion John McEnroe is selling an Andy Warhol of him and his former wife Tatum O'Neal to raise funds for charity. It is expected to fetch 250-350,000 pounds ($491,000-$687,000).
(1 pound = $1.9634)