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The news that George W. Bush would be spending another four years in the White House had barely sunk in before Christie’s and Sotheby’s were testing the confidence levels of art buyers with Impressionist and Modern auctions.

The sales carried an overall estimate of $370-500m (£212-£286m), the highest since the peak of the great art market boom in May 1990.

Lottage selling rates at Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening auctions on November 3 and 4 proved solid enough at 81 and 79 per cent respectively. However, as is increasingly the case in the Impressionist and Modern market, individual prices and overall totals were both struggling to match ambitious pre-sale estimates (and guarantees).

Impressionism continues to wane in popularity, the critical mass of demand shifting towards the sort of modern works that would also appeal to collectors of Contemporary art.

Yet Impressionism, or at least late Monet, still has its moments. Top price at Christie’s on Wednesday night was the upper-estimate $18m (£10.3m) paid by the Lebanese financier Samir Traboulsi for Monet’s finely preserved 1904 series painting, Londres, le Parlement, effet de soleil dans le brouillard, never before offered at auction.

Also totally fresh to the auction market was the superb 1938 Joan Miró canvas, La caresse des étoiles, the most valuable of a group of 17 high-quality modern works from the estate of the television impresario, Nathan L. Halpern. This sold to a US collector for $10.5m (£6m) against a $6m-8m estimate. Overall, Christie’s 58-lot Part One offering totalled $128m (£73.3m) against an estimate of $112m-160m.

The next evening Sotheby’s 61-lot Impressionist and Modern sale generated what appeared to be a more impressive premium-inclusive $194m (£111m) – their highest total since spring 1990 – but this was against a pre-sale estimate of $203m-276m inflated by some huge guarantees. No fewer than four lots were valued at $20m or more. Of these only one managed to sell within estimate, implying a hefty guarantee bill for Sotheby’s. Kandinsky’s 1912 abstract, Sketch for Deluge II ($20m-30m), failed to sell, while Mondrian’s New York. 1941/Boogie Woogie. 1941-42 crept home at $18.75m (£10.7m) against the same estimate. These had been among six lots from the collection of the New York art dealer’s widow Hester Diamond, guaranteed at around $65m.

Also falling short of estimate, but still setting a new record for the artist, was the beautiful, but supposedly heavily restored and touted-around 1899 Tahiti-period Gauguin, which sold on the telephone for $35m (£20m) against hopes of $40m-50m.

The only major lot to take off was Modigliani’s powerful and poignant 1919 portrait, Jeanne Hébuterne (devant une porte), entered by the widow of the major US collector Wendell Cherry. Five bidders pursued it to a record $28m (£16m), just below the $30m top estimate.

The individual sums paid for Impressionist and Modern art may still be impressively large, but New York’s Contemporary sales will outstrip them this week.