NEW YORK (Reuters) - If there is distress in the art market, it was not on view at Sotheby's on Wednesday as the auction house sold more than $180 million worth of Impressionist and modern art at a sale exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.
A night after a smaller sale at rival Christie's fell short, Sotheby's saw 85 percent of the 66 works on offer finding buyers and took in $181,760,000 including commission, some 10 percent above the high pre-sale estimate.
Officials said it was the first time since May 2006, in the midst of an unprecedented art market boom, that one of its Impressionist sales exceeded the high estimate.
Throughout the sale, at which five lots each sold for more than $10 million, bidding was competitive, prices beat expectations and a few records even fell.
"This was a real shot in the arm for the art market," said senior vice president Simon Shaw. "It was a real vote of confidence."
Using conservative estimates, Shaw said the sale demonstrated there was still a "great appetite" for quality works when they are "attractively priced."
Applause broke out at the sale's end, with Sotheby CEO Bill Ruprecht joining in from the sidelines.
The top lot was Giacometti's "L'homme qui Chavire," a 1951 bronze that soared to $19,346,500, or more than half-again its high estimate, after a protracted bidding war among six would-be buyers.
Records were set for Andre Derain, with "Barques au port de Collioure" fetching $14,082,500, roughly twice the pre-sale estimate, and for Kees Van Dongen with "Jeune Arabe," which sold for $13,802,500.
Auctioneer Tobias Meyer said afterward he could not recall having seen such activity and "depth of bidding at all (price) levels at an Impressionist and modern sale." It was all the more astonishing, he added, given the reality of the financial crisis that took hold a year ago.
Sotheby's did not provide a geographic breakdown of its buyers, but Meyer said bidding was deep from across Europe and Asia as well as in the salesroom.
"The market is very much alive ... after a year of abstinence," he said.
Other highlights included Kandinsky's "Krass und Mild" (Dramatic and Mild), which sold for $10,610,500, and Picasso's "Buste d'homme," the sale's top-estimated work, which went for $10,386,500.
Works by Pissarro and Leger also achieved twice the estimated prices, while Salvador Dali's "Girafe en feu" reached an astounding $1,874,500, more than nine times the high estimate and a record for a work on paper by the surrealist.
Sotheby's and Christie's will hold their contemporary and postwar auctions next week.
Editing by Peter Cooney