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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A volcanic landscape of lifeless nudes and a Brazilian jumble of whitewashed wood topped a sizzling sale of Latin American art that was reminiscent of the heady bidding in better economic times.
Sotheby's auction raked in $14.76 million, topping its own high estimate in its strongest sale of the region's art since the onset of the global financial crisis in mid-2008.
Bidders included collectors from Russia, Indonesia and South Africa, rarely seen in such force for Latin American art, according to auctioneer August Uribe.
"We witnessed a remarkable breadth and depth of bidding tonight, not only from the Americas but also across Europe and Asia," Maria Bonta de la Pezuela, a vice president and senior specialist at Sotheby's, said of the Wednesday night sale.
Chilean artist Matta's painting "Endless Nudes" was the top seller at $2.5 million.
Inspired by Mexican volcanoes, the 1941-1942 work shows torsos, legs and chests in faded violet and ash gray tones. Body parts descend and dissolve into an inferno of magma red flashes and swirls of yellow and green.
Uribe said Matta's rapid brushwork style helped shape budding U.S. abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. The U.S. artists studied with Matta in the early 1940s in Greenwich Village, according to art historians.
Brazilian Sergio Camargo's "Relief" fetched $1.6 million. A labyrinth of whitewashed cylinders, its tips slant in myriad directions; the work set a world auction record for Camargo.
Uribe said the Brazilian bids were spurred by the strong performance of the country's currency, the Brazilian real, which had a 35 percent jump against the dollar this year.
Another target of heated demand was "La Lectora" (Woman Reading), an 1890 work by Venezuelan Cristobal Rojas, which fetched $1.17 million.
Painted in France, it shows a young woman seated by a window. Leaden light penetrates lacy curtains, casting a warm glow on her white smock. Darkened tinges trace her book's well-worn pages and the dog-eared cover.
Rojas won multiple top prizes in the annual French Salon competitions, said Sotheby's Vice President Axel Stein, adding that Rojas' paintings mainly hang in Venezuelan museums and in the country's foreign ministry and presidential palace,
In all, 86 percent of lots on offer sold on Wednesday night, making it one of Sotheby's three strongest sales for Latin American art in the past decade. Nearly 70 percent of lots sold topped Sotheby's high estimates.
"I was astonished by the vigorous bidding," said Mexico City gallery owner Pablo Goebel, a veteran of 12 years of Latin American art auctions in New York. "I had expected the auction to tank. Our economies are just coming out of recession."
Editing by Patricia Reaney