NEW YORK -- With collectors' appetite for masterpieces of impressionist, modern and contemporary art seemingly unbounded, two works are poised to challenge world auction records on Monday.
Picasso's "Women of Algiers (Version O)," a vibrant, multi-hued painting featuring a scantily attired female amid smaller nudes, could sell for more than $140 million, becoming the most expensive work of art at auction, according to Christie's. The evening sale also features Alberto Giacometti's life-size sculpture "Pointing Man" for an estimated $130 million. That could earn it the title of most expensive sculpture sold at auction.
Experts say the once unthinkable prices are driven by artworks' investment value and by wealthy new and established collectors seeking out the very best works.
"I don't really see an end to it, unless interest rates drop sharply, which I don't see happening in the near future," Manhattan dealer Richard Feigen said.
Impressionist and modern artworks continue to corner the market because "they are beautiful, accessible and a proven value. ... Prices for works from these periods only seen to go up each auction cycle and the reputations of the artists become further enshrined ... Today the works epitomize the conservative, moneyed establishment." added Sarah Lichtman, professor of design history and curatorial studies at The New School.
"I think we will continue to see the financiers seeking these works out as they would a blue chip company that pays reliable dividends for years to come."
The Picasso and Giacometti are among two dozen blue chip pieces from the 20th century that Christie's is offering in a curated sale titled "Looking Forward to the Past."
"Women of Algiers," once owned by the American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz, was inspired by Picasso's fascination with the 19th-century French artist Eugene Delacroix. It is part of a 15-work series Picasso created in 1954-1955 designated with the letters A through O. It has appeared in several major museum retrospectives of the artist.
The most expensive art work sold at auction currently is held by Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," which Christie's sold for $142.4 million in 2013.
"Pointing Man," depicting a skinny 5-foot-high bronze figure with extended arms, has been in the same private collection for 45 years. Giacometti, who died in 1966, made six casts of the work; four are in museums, the others are in private hands and a foundation collection. His "Walking Man I" holds the auction record for a sculpture. It sold in 2010 for $104.3 million.
Among other highlights at Christie's is Peter Doig's "Swamped," a 1990 painting of a solitary canoe in a moonlit lagoon that could set a record for the British artist. It is estimated to fetch around $20 million. The current record is $18 million.
Monet's "The Houses of Parliament, At Sunset," a lush painting of rich blues and magenta created in 1900-1901, is estimated to bring $35 million to $45 million. The current Monet auction record is his 1919 "Water Lily Pond," which sold for $80.5 million in 2008.
Christie's also has a Rothko for sale. "No. 36 (Black Stripe)," which has never appeared at auction, is estimated to sell for $30 million to $50 million. The 1958 work is being sold by the German collector Frieder Burda, who exhibited it in his museum in Baden-Baden for several years.
Last year, Christie said its global sales of impressionist and modern art was $1.2 billion, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year.
In November, CBS MoneyWatch reported that a recent Sotheby's auction earned $422.1 million in sales, the highest total in the 248-year-old auction house's history. Longtime rival Christie's sold $165.6 million worth of Impressionist and modern art during another recent auction.
"The strength of the stock market has some effect on the art market as it does every market," according to a Christie's statement provided to CBS MoneyWatch in November. "However, to a larger degree, the confidence we are seeing in art investment is due to the consistently strong auction results we are seeing season after season, and a growing interest in owning important objects and works of art."