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Millions For Modern Art

Buyers left their chairs and paddles behind, but not much else at Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art auction on Wednesday as collectors snapped up everything from a $120,000 Picasso to a $16.8 million Cezanne.

In total Sotheby's took in $126 million from the sale and of the 55 lots, only three failed to find buyers. It was one of the best results for a major art sale in years.

"We're absolutely thrilled," said David Norman, Sotheby's worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art. "With the markets, interest rates, and the political and world situation so unstable, it's just amazing to see the market so strong."

One disappointment was the auction's highest-priced painting, Gauguin's "Femmes pres des Palmiers," an 1891 work from the artist's first Tahiatian trip. With a pre-sale estimate of between $15 million and $20 million, bidding topped out at $11.5 million and the piece went unsold.

Cezanne's "Pichet et assiette de poires," a still life from a series incorporating a gray pitcher, was the evening's top lot, fetching $16,784,500. It was closely followed by Degas' "Au musee du Louvre (Miss Cassatt)," which sold for $16,509,500 including the auction house's commission.

Sculpture attracted competitive bidding and top prices. Giacometti's "Grande tete de Diego," a large bust of the artist's brother, brought a whopping $13,759,500, very near the $14.3 million record for the artist.

Charles Moffett, Norman's partner, said the market was finally catching up to sculpture, which he said had been "undervalued" for years. "I think it's clear that in the last two or three years .... the prices paid have been bringing more interesting things out," Moffett said.

Another of the auction's top pieces, Matisse's "Figure decorative," sold for a relatively disappointing $8,259,500, below its low estimate of $9 million.

A record was set for the artist Juan Gris, whose Cubist work "Le pot de Geranium" sold for $8,479,500.

A work of noteworthy provenance, which failed to sell, was Monet's "Le repos dans le jardin, Argenteuil." Estimated at $3.5 million to $4.5 million, the work was offered for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The property of Maria Newman of Hamburg and Berlin who died in 1942, the Monet was placed in a vault at the Deutsche Bank, Berlin in the early 1940s but was allegedly stolen by the Soviet army in 1945. The Newman heirs relinquished their claims to the work under an agreement with the Metropolitan just last summer.

The spring auctions continue next week with sales of post-war and contemporary works at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips, which canceled its New York Impressionist and modern auction and recently stated it was no longer in direct competition with the two other auction houses.

By Christopher Michaud