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To increase gathering times and let buyers recover from their November purchases, Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London have abandoned their traditional policy of holding sales in early December, a month after New York’s Impression-ist and Modern week.

Buyers seemed comfortable enough with the new February sale dates, though totals were somewhat lower than in December 1999.

Bidding was upbeat and competitive at Sotheby’s tightly-edited February 5 Part I sale of Impressionist & Modern art – led by the record £7m given by New York’s Acquavella Galleries for Egon Schiele’s Secessionist Portrait of the Painter Anton Peschka and the £4.8m paid by a South-East Asian telephone buyer for Monet’s c.1917-1920 Bassin aux Nympheas – but the total of £23.6m was £3.5m down on Bond Street’s December 1999 Part I proceeds, despite an impressive selling rate of 96 per cent by value.

Bidding was less consistent at Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist & Modern Art on February 6 – bought-ins were 26 per cent by lot and 23 per cent by value – but the total of £17.8m was some £500,000 up on December 1999.

With Picasso’s 1932 oil Le Repos failing to make its ambitious estimate of £2.5-3.5m, top performer at Christie’s was Picasso’s 1942 canvas, Buste de Femme (Dora Maar), bought by the Tel Aviv-based dealer Joseph Hackmey.

Consignors, having seen a softening of demand at the November Impressionist and Modern sales in New York, were clearly nervous about testing the market at the highest level. Continuing concerns over the health of the American economy were underlined on February 6 by Christie’s first Art of the Surreal sale, where 87 per cent of the lots went to Europeans.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary sales made similar totals. Bond Street’s February 7 evening auction took £7.5m (£1.5m up on last year) with a record £1.05m for Sigmar Polke’s c.1963-64 Doppelportrat.
Christie’s slickly marketed but unconvincingly auctioned February 8 double act of Post War and Contemporary Art took a total of £8.5m from 54 lots. There were strong notes of selectivity – particularly for 1950s painting and Thomas Struth photographs – but selling rates of more than 75 per cent at all three sales suggested continuing confidence for ‘classic’ contemporary and ‘cutting edge’ works.