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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Rodin sculpture set a new artist's auction record at Sotheby's on Monday when it sold for $20.4 million, but the strong price was likely to provide little reassurance to an art market that many fear is softening after years of spiking prices.
Sotheby's sale of Impressionist and modern art took in a total of $144.4 million, missing the low pre-sale estimate of about $165 million for 62 lots offered. One-third of the works went unsold.
Despite some high points that drew spirited bidding, the sale was marked by its relatively high unsold rate, and somewhat tepid prices for works that did find buyers.
Rodin's marble sculpture, "L'Eternal Printemps," soared far beyond its estimated price of $8 million to $12 million, and broke the Rodin auction record of just under $20 million.
Drawing intense, global competition, Sotheby's pointed to the work as emblematic of the kind of fresh-to-market, quality works that auction houses must now offer to elicit strong prices and spirited bidding.
Executives employed words such as discerning, measured and selective to characterize both the night's results and the present market itself.
"It's emblematic of the marketplace we're in right now," said Helena Newman, European chairman of Impressionist and modern art, adding "It's nuanced market."
After years of soaring prices, both Sotheby's and rival Christie's have assembled markedly smaller spring sales, with no works carrying estimates much beyond $40 million. In recent seasons several works have broken the $100 million mark.
The sale's expected highlight, Andre Derain's "Les Voiles rouges" estimated at $15 million to $20 million, failed to sell. Picasso's "Buste d'homme Laure," expected to fetch $8 million to $12 million, suffered the same fate.
Among highlights, Maurice de Vlaminck's "Sous-bois" fetched $16.4 million, in the midst of the estimate range, and Monet's "Maree basse aux Petites-Dalles" sold for $9.9 million, nearly doubling the high estimate. Three Monets were among the 10 highest-priced lots.
Sotheby's has suffered a spate of resignations by top-tier executives, many of whom had worked there for decades, as well as the departure of its long-serving CEO.
The auction stood in contrast to Christie's curated sale on Sunday featuring challenging works by artists typically considered less-than commercial. It took in $78 million, handily beating the pre-sale estimate of about $60 million. But Christie's curated sale last fall, notably, totaled $495 million.
The auctions continue on Tuesday with Christie's post-war and contemporary art auction.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore