NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Bolstered by strong results last year, leading auction houses are hoping sales in London next month will ride an art market recovery after the sharp decline that sent prices tumbling in 2009.
Art experts at Sotheby's said they are cautiously optimistic that works by Pablo Picasso, Frances Bacon and Salvador Dali, which are on display in New York this week, will set some new artist's records at the Feb 10 sale in London.
"There continues to be a very, very strong global demand for quality works, from collectors both established and new," said Helena Newman, Sotheby's' European head of Impressionist and modern art.
"That was very much in evidence in New York and in London all through last year."
Sotheby's is exhibiting more than 50 of the most valuable works it will auction in London, including "La Lecture," a 1932 Picasso portrait of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter, which has an estimated price of up to $27 million, and "Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud" by Francis Bacon that could fetch as much at $14 million.
The 50-plus works are valued at more than $120 million.
Bacon's triptych of his good friend Freud, and a diminutive Freud self-portrait, could sell from 40 to 55 million pounds ($62 million to $85 million).
Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary and post-war art, said Freud was on holiday at Ian Fleming's famous "Goldeneye" estate in Jamaica in 1952 when he found himself trapped on a banana boat with a group of people he despised.
The often-dour artist locked himself in a bathroom, and rendered the iconic self-portrait.
"It just shows how great art can be produced anywhere," Meyer said.
Bacon's "Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud," has not been seen publicly in 45 years. In May 2008 a large Bacon triptych sold for $86.3 million, a record for the artist.
Works by Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani are among scores of paintings and sculptures that are on display and will be auctioned in London.
A $104.3 million Giacometti sculpture sold at Sotheby's a year ago set a record for any work sold at auction, but it was soon eclipsed in May by the $106.5 million sale of a Picasso at Christie's. Sotheby's also set a Modigliani record in November at its New York sale.
"Collectors see art as a very good investment," Meyer said. "Prices have come back, but with credit markets opening up, maybe they don't need to sell to raise liquidity," he added, referring to the difficulty of securing rare, top-quality works to sell.
"That's why we see this intense competition for estates," he said.
Dali's early Surrealist portrait of Paul Eluard, expected to sell for more than 4 million pounds ($6 million), is poised to break the $5.7 million record for the artist set in May in New York.
Christie's displayed Impressionist and modern works this week at an exhibition in New York and a group of Surrealist offerings that will be auctioned in London on February 9.
Sotheby's Impressionist and modern auction is slated for February 8 in London.