NEW YORK (Reuters) - With a billion dollars worth of art on offer at their spring auctions in New York, Christie's and Sotheby's are looking to the post-war and contemporary works to drive the market this month.
The sales of the newer works are expected to exceed those of the once-dominant Impressionist and modern field by anywhere from 50 to 100 percent, according to estimates.
While both Christie's and Sotheby's have a pair of Impressionist or modern paintings valued at $20 million or $30 million-range, both houses' contemporary sales feature at least three works that are expected to fetch $30 million to $40 million, and possibly more.
Records are likely to fall for artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gerhard Richter, who already holds the record price for a work by any living artist at auction.
"The supply of $30-million-plus paintings and high-quality material is far greater than what you can find in the Impressionist and modern field," said Brett Gorvy, Christie's worldwide chairman of post-war and contemporary art.
"There's also a very strong taste for 20th and 21st century works which is very global, and has probably increased more in recent years, than it has for other categories."
Gorvy added that a strong cycle like the one that started in 2010 brings in new collectors and drives up prices.
Christie's post-war sale on May 15 features three works that are each expected to fetch around $30 million or more. Jackson Pollock's "Number 19, 1948" and Basquiat's "Dustheads" each have a pre-sale estimate of up to $35 million, and Roy Lichtenstein's "Woman with Flowered Hat" could sell for more than $30 million.
At Sotheby's sale on May 14 a trio of works from the latter half of the 20th century are the highest-priced works of any auction of the entire two-week period.
Richter's "Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan)," Francis Bacon's "Study for Portrait of P.L." and Barnett Newman's "Onement VI" are each expected to sell for between $30 million and $40 million.
"We don't know what's going to happen," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art.
But no one is counting out the ability of the Impressionist and modern market to make a splash and bring out big spenders.
Brooke Lampley, head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's New York, noted its sale on Wednesday features blue-chip artists like Monet, Picasso, Matisse and Miro, whose prices usually withstand volatility in broader markets.
While this season offers nothing remotely approaching Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which Sotheby's sold for a record $120 million a year ago, its collection from the estate of inventor and entrepreneur Alex Lewyt has drawn great interest.
"Early indications are we're going to have a vast array of buyers," said David Norman, Sotheby's worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art.
"The demand rises to the supply," he said, adding the demand and price is entirely about the quality of the pieces.
The highlights of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern sale on Tuesday include Rodin's "Le Penseur" ("The Thinker"), one of the world's most recognizable sculptures. The signed 1906 cast is expected to sell for $8 million to $12 million.
Its top lot is Cezanne's still life "Les Pommes," with a pre-sale estimate of $25 million to $35 million, and Modigliani's portrait "L'Amazone," which could fetch as much as $30 million.
At Christie's, Chaim Soutine's "Le petit patissier" is estimated to fetch $16 million to $22 million, while Andre Derain's avant-garde portrait "Madame Matisse au kimono" could sell for $15 million to $20 million.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Beech