THE return of free-spending at the very top end of the art market continued apace at last week’s Impressionist and Modern sales series in New York as boom-time levels of bidding were seen on the blockbuster lots. For the second time this year, a new record was set for any artwork ever sold at auction.
Coming only three months after Alberto Giacometti's (1901-1966) sculpture L'Homme Qui Marche I sold for £58m at Sotheby's in London, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) returned to the top spot on the all-time table when Nude, Green Leaves and Bust was knocked down for $95m (£65.1m) at Christie's flagship evening sale on May 4.
The Spanish modern master now holds three of the top four works sold at auction (click here for a list of the top all-time prices for art).
Estimated at $70m-90m, the bidding for the 1932 depiction of the artist's 24-year-old mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter opened at $58m, with eight parties competing. Taking almost ten minutes to sell, it came down to a two-way competition from $88m onwards before being knocked down to an anonymous telephone buyer.
The price demonstrated the confidence that has swelled the top end of the market over the past eight months.
Amongst the names vented as possible buyers of the Picasso have been Hong Kong collector Joseph Lau and the hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen.
In 2006 the latter had agreed to purchase Le Rêve from the same series from casino tycoon Steve Wynn for $139m - a deal that fell through after Wynn accidentally made a tear in the canvas with his elbow.
With their large size - this picture measured 5ft 4in x 4ft 3in (1.62 x 1.3m) - and sensuous subject these are now deemed Picasso's most commercial works.
Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, painted on a single day in March 1932, was the trophy picture in the 27-lot consignment of works from the estate of Frances Lasker Brody, who died last year aged 93. She had acquired the Picasso with her husband, real estate developer Sidney Brody, in 1950 for $17,000 from the New York art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
It had only been exhibited once since then (in 1961) and it was kept along with other works in the collection at the Brodys' Modernist mansion in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles (the property itself is on the market for $25m).
The blue-chip Brody consignment heralded the return of the price guarantee after a period of abstinence. Christie's won the collection in part thanks to issuing a guaranteed sum to the vendor, although for the most expensive works the finances were arranged through third parties.
In the event, this calculated risk paid off as all 27 Brody lots sold for $199m (£136m). This included two Giacometti sculptures at prices that suggest the fame of L'Homme Qui Marche I is dragging prices higher.
Both selling above estimate were Grande Tête Mince from 1954-55, the most highly-prized of the artist's busts which made $47.5m (£32.5m), and Le Chat, conceived in 1951 but cast in 1955, that made $18.5m (£12.7m). In the equivalent Sotheby's sale last year another market-fresh version of the latter had failed to sell at $16m.
The 42-lot mixed-owner part of Christie's sale - topped by Giacometti's La Main which made $23m (£15.8m) against a £10m-15m estimate - was patchier with 29 lots finding buyers.
However, contributing a further $97.6m (£66.8m), Christie's overall take from their evening sale was $296.6m (£203.2m), comfortably within the $263m-$368m pre-sale estimate.
At their evening sale the day after on May 5, Sotheby's achieved a $171.3m (£117.3m) hammer total, selling 50 of their 57 lots.
The top lot was Bouquet de Fleurs Pour le Quatorze Juillet by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) which, pursued by four bidders, made $25.5m (£17.5m) against an $18m-25m estimate.
Both evening sales made totals well over three times their equivalent events last year, and the auctioneers will be hoping that this masterpiece momentum continues at the Contemporary art series in New York this week.
By Alex Capon