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LONDON (Reuters) - En garde!
Rival auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's are offering 1969 Picasso musketeer paintings at their London sales next week in a head-to-head clash.
Christie's "Homme a l'epee" is expected to fetch 5-7 million pounds ($8.2-11.4 million) at an impressionist and modern art sale on June 23, a sum experts say reflects strong interest in the artist's later works as well as a tidy profit for its owners -- it made 2.7 million pounds in 2005.
A few hundred yards down the road Sotheby's has its own "Homme a l'epee," expected to fetch 6-8 million pounds when it goes under the hammer the following day.
The painting, darker in tone than the Christie's version, was selected for the poster advertising the 1970 Picasso exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, at which both works appeared.
The vibrant paintings were executed when Picasso was in his late 80s and not long before he died in 1973. Their appearance in the forthcoming sales is not as much of a coincidence as it may seem, auction officials said.
Interest in Picasso has been driven partly by major exhibitions on the Spanish master, including "Picasso: Challenging the Past" at London's National Gallery and "Pablo Picasso: Mosqueteros" at the Gagosian in New York.
Both have just finished and the latter concentrated on the painter's later works, which are widely considered to be inferior to his earlier output.
Evidence that that opinion may be changing came at Christie's May auction in New York when "Mousquetaire a la Pipe" (1968) fetched $14.6 million, double what it made in 2004.
"This powerful, museum-quality painting, which has never before been at auction, comes to the market at a time when the interest in and assessment of Picasso's late oeuvre has never been stronger," said Sotheby's director Helena Newman.
The apparently spontaneous brushwork, vivid colors and energy of both paintings recall the work of a child, despite Picasso's advanced age.
The artist is famously quoted as saying: "When I was a child I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child."
Christie's and Sotheby's, the world's dominant auction houses, are also offering comparable Picasso nudes.
Christie's has "Nu Assis et Joueur de Flute" from 1967, valued at 3-4 million pounds, while Sotheby's is selling "Nu Debout," dated 1968, with the same estimate.
Scottish painter Peter Doig is one of the highlights of the contemporary art sales at both auction houses, with Sotheby's "Almost Grown" estimated at 1.4-1.8 million pounds and Christie's "Night Playground" at 1.5-2.0 million.
Overall the series of sales over the next fortnight, centering around evening auctions of impressionist/modern art and contemporary art, reflect the view among auctioneers that values of rare works are holding up despite the global recession.
Volumes, however, are down sharply on a year ago as sellers refrain from offering art at a time of economic uncertainty.
At Christie's impressionist and modern art evening sale, for example, estimates range from 37.8-51.7 million pounds. The company raised 144.4 million pounds at the same auction last year, although the total included four collections. Sotheby's expects to raise 26.8-37.3 million pounds at its main impressionist auction, versus 102.2 million last June.
Editing by Paul Casciato