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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Auctioneer Sotheby's will offer contemporary works estimated at more than 56 million pounds ($89 million) at a series of London sales in February, reflecting surging confidence in the fine art market.
The total is the second highest estimate for a February London contemporary art series at Sotheby's, and follows a successful 2010 when art prices rose sharply despite broader economic concerns.
One driving force behind blockbuster sales has been the presence of Chinese collectors and investors, who could be involved again next month with Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seeds" among the lots on offer.
The 100 kg batch of the handmade porcelain seed reproductions, which can be displayed according to the owner's tastes, is expected to fetch 80-120,000 pounds. It is the first time the seeds have been offered at auction.
The volume is dwarfed by a major installation by the Chinese artist at London's Tate Modern gallery, where some 100 million similar "seeds" have been spread across the floor of the huge Turbine Hall.
Given that the seeds in the gallery are reported to weigh around 150 tonnes, a market value could soon be put on the giant work.
Sotheby's said Sunflowers reflected the artist's preoccupation with the scale of industrial mass production, as well as with "unattainable" agricultural quotas set by China's late Chairman Mao Zedong "at unfathomable human cost."
Headlining the February auctions will be Gerhard Richter's "Abstraktes Bild," from 1990, estimated at 5-7 million pounds, and Andy Warhol's "Nine Multicoloured Marilyns" expected to fetch 2-3 million pounds.
There are also works by artists including Lucio Fontana, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Juan Munoz, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Chris Ofili and Ged Quinn.
In 2010, Sotheby's generated global contemporary art sales of $854 million, the third highest total in its history.
While auctioneers say they are confident of building on last year's successes, which followed a sharp retraction in the art market brought on by the global financial crisis, some analysts are warning of the danger of an unsustainable market bubble.
The estimate of at least 56 million pounds for the February sales includes both the main evening auction on February 15, the day auction and the contemporary component of the "Looking Closely" single owner sale to be held on February 10.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato