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John Thain's Picasso fetches US$29.6m as auctions start

[NEW YORK] Works by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso led Christie's mixed auction of Impressionist and modern art on Sunday in New York.

The total was US$279.2 million, below the low estimate of $305 million, and 42 per cent less than the similar auction a year ago. Of the 61 offered lots, 15 percent failed to find buyers, including a Vincent Van Gogh painting that was estimated at about US$40 million.

The event kicked off a week of semiannual auctions that targets more than US$1.8 billion in sales. One of the biggest concerns heading into the week is how active Asian buyers will be in light of tighter enforcement of capital controls by the Chinese government and the specter of an escalating trade war between the US and China.

"It didn't seem like their Asian representatives were bidding on as many high value lots as in past seasons," said David Norman, a private art dealer in New York who attended the Christie's sale.

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Christie's said 12 lots were either bought or underbid by clients from Asia, including China. The evening's top lot, a Monet water lily painting, sold for US$31.8 million, against an estimate of US$30 million to US$50 million. Its buyer was a client of Elaine Holt, Christie's Hong Kong-based senior director of Impressionist and modern art. At least two paintings by Picasso also went to Asian buyers, Christie's said after the sale.

Picasso's "La Lampe," a 1931 painting depicting the artist's young lover, Marie-Therese Walter, fetched US$29.6 million. It was estimated at US$25 million to US$35 million. The seller of the work, listed in the catalog as anonymous, was Wall Street veteran John Thain, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. He'd owned it since 2008.

Picasso accounted for 15 of the lots in the tonight's sale, and all but two found buyers. The Spanish artist's grandson, Olivier Widmaier Picasso, 55, was among the throng of dealers and collectors attending the sale. He said that the prices for Picasso were "fair," the estimates "strong" and the buyers "informed."

"People are cautious," he said as he left the salesroom. "They are willing to spend money, but not to throw money away."

One Picasso casualty was a smaller portrait of Walter in an orange beret, estimated at US$15 million to US$20 million. Monet's "L'Escalier à Vétheuil," with an estimate range of US$12 million to US$18 million, also went unsold.

Among the bright spots of the evening was Monet's wintry snow scene at Giverny that fetched US$15.5 million, triple the low estimate of US$5 million. New auction records were set for two artists: A curvy white sculpture by Hans Arp sold for US$5.8 million and a 1929 painting by Tamara de Lempicka, "La Musicienne," found a buyer at US$9.1 million. Prices include buyer's premium; estimates don't.

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