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Modern Art Nets Sky-High Prices

Detail of "Berliner Strassenszene," by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
AP Photo/Christie's
An auction of postwar art featuring four Gustav Klimts and an array of other blockbuster impressionist and modern works resulted in a staggering $491 million sales at Christie's auction house Wednesday night.

All the paintings exceeded their estimates, beating the previous Christie's record of $269 million set in 1990. Only 84 lots were offered; six failed to sell.

Five of the works, including the Klimts, had recently been the subjects of Nazi restitution.

The Klimts - four landscapes and a portrait - recently hung in the Neue Galerie, a Manhattan museum co-founded by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. They were originally owned by industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and his wife, Adele, an art patron in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

2They were handed over by Austria in January to Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, after a seven-year legal battle. An arbitration court had ruled that the works were improperly seized when the Nazis annexed Austria during World War II.

The Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for $87.9 million, an auction record for a Klimt that caused the auction room to explode in applause. Its presale estimate was $40 million to $60 million.

Klimt's "Birch Forest" went for $40.3 million, above its estimate of $30 million; "Apple Tree I" brought $33 million and "Houses in Unterach on the Attersee" fetched $31.3 million, both above their $25 million presale estimates.

"My Aunt Adele and Uncle Ferdinand enjoyed living with these paintings and sharing them and we trust that their new owners will build on this tradition of appreciation," Altmann said in a statement released by Christie's.

"It was certainly the most amazing sale I've ever taken," Christopher Burge, Christie's honorary chairman and the evening's auctioneer, said after the 2½ hour event, which was packed with bidders and spectators.

The identities of the buyers were not released. The sale prices included auction house commissions of 20 percent for prices up to $200,000 and 12 percent above that.

"Berliner Strassenszene," a colorful scene of Berlin's famous streetwalkers, was one of only 11 street scenes painted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It was another work involving Nazi restitution that sold for $38 million, above its $18 million-to-$25 million presale estimate, setting a record for the artist. It was purchased by the Neue Galerie, Christie's said.

The Kirchner work recently was turned over to the heirs of Jewish shoe factory owner Alfred Hess by the Bruecke-Museum in Berlin, where it had been on display since 1980. Hess' widow, Tekla Hess, contended she was intimidated into bringing the painting back to Germany from safety in Switzerland. It was sold to an artist friend of Kirchner's.

Three works by Egon Schiele that were consigned by the Neue Galerie also set high prices. They included a two-sided painting, "Houses (With Mountains)" on one side and "Monk 1" on the other," that realized $22.4 million, a record for the artist.

Among several artist records at the auction was Paul Gauguin's "Man With an Ax," which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $40.3 million. The painting, depicting a Tahitian in front of his boat, had been in the collection of the Sultan of Brunei's family, The New York Times said. It had been estimated at $35 million to $45 million.

The Gauguin had appeared at auction only once before, in 1893, Christie's said.

Another potential star of the evening sale, Picasso's "Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto," was withdrawn by Christie's and its seller, the foundation of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, just hours before the auction was to begin. A day earlier, a federal judge had dismissed a lawsuit brought by a man who claimed his ancestor, a wealthy banker from Berlin, was forced by the Nazis to sell the painting cheaply.

Christie's said it was withdrawing the painting because "of eleventh-hour claims" - claims it and Webber "believe to have no merit - about title to the picture."

Julius Schoeps of Berlin, who was thwarted by the federal court, turned to a state court on Wednesday. His lawsuit asks the court to declare him the rightful owner of the painting.