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Record-breaking US$646.1m sales at Rockefeller auction

Buyers, seeking to own a Rockefeller art trophy, snap up every lot at the sale, surpassing the low estimate of US$484m

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Henri Matisse's 1923 painting Odalisque couchee aux magnolias, depicting a voluptuous woman with her arms folded behind her head on a green chaise longue, was sold for US$80.7 million (estimate of US$70 million). The price smashed the French artist's previous auction record of US$48.8 million.

BILLIONAIRES from around the world fought for a chance to own Peggy and David Rockefeller's art trophies, sending paintings by Henri Matisse and Claude Monet to record prices at Christie's in New York on Tuesday.

The evening sale of 44 lots of 19th and 20th century art from the collection tallied US$646.1 million, surpassing the low estimate of US$484 million. Every lot sold. Five more live auctions from the estate took place during the week as well as an online sale, offering more than 1,500 items, including porcelain, silver and furniture. The estate's proceeds will benefit 12 institutions selected by the Rockefellers.

"We are now very well on our way to achieving the goal our parents set for their philanthropic legacy, and we are eagerly looking forward to what the rest of this historic week will bring," David Rockefeller Jr said in a statement on behalf of his extended family.

Christie's guaranteed the estate an undisclosed minimum price, offsetting its risk with 13 third-party guarantees, announced prior to the sale for many of the top lots. The auction house compensated the backers of two lots who ended up buying the works with US$365,156 culled from its commission, according to Lobus, a firm that tracks auction data.

Among them was the evening's most expensive work - a 1905 Pablo Picasso painting of a teenage nude, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie - that fetched US$115 million, the highest price for the Spanish master after his US$179.4 million record set three years ago. It had been estimated at US$100 million.

The third-party guarantor was bidding through Loic Gouzer, Christie's co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art in the Americas, who placed the US$102 million winning bid. The final price, including Christie's standard buyer's premium, should have been US$115,062,500, according to Lobus. But the auction house reported US$115 million as the final price, suggesting that the guarantor received a US$62,500 fee for agreeing to place the irrevocable bid, ensuring that the work sells.

"It shows the giveback to the third party for taking on that risk" said Sarah Wendell Sherrill, co-founder of Lobus. "This is the true price and it's better for the market that they are being transparent."

A third-party backer also bought a Venetian landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot for US$9 million, a record auction price for the artist. That total included a US$302,656 commission refund from Christie's, according to Lobus.

Matisse's 1923 painting Odalisque couchee aux magnolias, depicting a voluptuous woman with her arms folded behind her head on a green chaise longue also drew tepid bidding. It sold to Xin Li Cohen, deputy chairman of Christie's Asia, on behalf of a client, for US$80.7 million, compared with an estimate of $70 million. The price still smashed the French artist's previous auction record of US$48.8 million.

Resistance at the top

"There's resistance at the top level," said Brett Gorvy, co-owner of Levy Gorvy gallery in New York and London, adding that the results for Picasso and Matisse were disappointing "after so much hype".

Christie's spent six months marketing the collection around the world, with special campaigns in China, Japan, France and the Gulf States. Some 80,000 people saw the traveling exhibition. "The Rockefeller name was clearly bankable in the auction room," said art lawyer Thomas C Danziger, a partner at Danziger, Danziger & Muro LLP.

Monet's painting of a water-lily pond fetched US$84.7 million, surpassing the estimated US$50 million and establishing a new artist record. Painted during World War I, the canvas is rich in mauve and lilac as well as rougher, more muscular brush strokes. Li Cohen won the painting for her client. The Monet was among seven artist records in the sale.

The auction kicked off with a flurry of bids for a 5-by-7-inch watercolour of an apple by Picasso. Within seconds, bidding surpassed the estimated range of US$1 million to US$1.5 million, selling at US$3.9 million. Titled Pomme, the 1914 work was a Christmas gift to Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B Toklas, from the artist. Earlier that year, Stein and her brother Leo split up their storied art collection and she lost a beloved Cezanne painting of five apples. Picasso made up for the loss with a Cezanne-inspired drawing of his own, which he inscribed on the back. A four-panel group Les delices de la vie by Armand Seguin soared to US$7.7 million from the starting bid of US$800,000. At least a dozen bidders pursued the allegorical scene of earthly pleasures, which smashed the previous auction record of US$314,897 for the artist. "That's what rational exuberance looks like," said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery, who won a still life by Giorgio Morandi for US$4.3 million, an artist auction record. "There's a lot of great new energy in the Impressionist and modern art field from all over the world."

Paul Gauguin's La Vague fetched US$35.2 million, almost twice the estimated US$18 million. Painted in 1888 in Brittany, it depicts two massive black rocks during the North Atlantic surf, with two tiny figures rushing out of the water onto a ree beach. "What you can't underestimate is the history of the pictures, the premium to be paid for what's essentially American royalty," said Melanie Clore, London-based art adviser and co-founder of Clore Wyndham. "If you are a new collector, it's a great validation and if you are an old collector, it's part of your history." BLOOMBERG

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