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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sotheby's achieved a respectable result on Tuesday at its contemporary art auction, held amid a stumbling market struggling to hold on to at least some of its gains from recent years.
The sale, at which the majority of successful bidders were American, took in $125 million, including commission, against a low estimate of $200 million, a benchmark established before the September onset of the crisis gripping world financial markets.
Records were set for Philip Guston, John Currin and Richard Serra as 68 percent of the 63 lots on offer found buyers -- to the relief of Sotheby's officials.
"We're very happy with what happened tonight," said Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art who also served as auctioneer.
"You saw tonight a seasoned, smart collecting community," said Meyer, adding he was personally thanked afterward for demonstrating there was still a market for fine art.
The sale's bidding and prices improved on last week's spotty Impressionist and modern results, defying some analysts' expectations the contemporary market could suffer a more acute correction, given the tremendous price spikes of recent seasons.
Sotheby's and rival Christie's have been encouraging sellers in recent weeks to adjust their expectations and lower reserves -- the secret minimum price at which they will sell at auction -- and the strategy seemed mostly to have worked on Tuesday.
Bidders responded to lower prices and "did not sit on their hands," Meyer said.
Most works sold below the low pre-sale estimates, which were set months ago on the heels of what Sotheby's said was a 250 percent increase in prices for contemporary art in the past two years. Some went for half their low estimates.
The top lot, Yves Klein's "RE 11 Archisponge," which was expected to fetch some $25 million, sold for $21,362,500, while Guston's "Beggar's Joys," estimated at $15 million, only managed $10,162,500.
But the $5.5 million fetched by Currin's "Nice 'N Easy" after several bidders vied for it beat even its high estimate of $4.5 million. At least five bidders competed for Jeff Koons' "Wishing Well," which still came in well under the low estimate of $2.5 million.
"Clearly we're seeing a settling back," said senior international specialist Anthony Grant.
The evening's biggest casualty was Roy Lichtenstein's "Half Face with Collar," which secured no bids beyond $11 million against an estimate of $15 million to $20 million.
The major autumn sales wrap up on Wednesday with Christie's postwar and contemporary auction, followed by the Latin American sales later this month.
Editing by Peter Cooney