IN a series of high-profile auctions in New York that saw an underperforming run of Impressionist and Modern art sales, the eye-catching price of the week by some distance came for a 19th century historical genre painting.
Overshooting a $3-5m estimate and selling for $26m (£16.6m), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's (1836-1912) The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra drew an eight-minute bidding battle at Sotheby's New York on May 5 and made the top price of the week, trumping anything offered elsewhere in the Big Apple auctions.
This latest result for Alma-Tadema followed the phenomenal $32m (£20.9m) for The Finding of Moses at Sotheby's in November, a sum that was over eight times the previous record for the artist.
Drawing bidding from two determined telephone bidders, demand for the latest picture, which Alma-Tadema completed in 1883, was even more impressive considering the oil on panel was under half the size of The Finding of Moses.
While Sotheby's would not reveal any information about the buyer, it seems likely that they were one of the three bidders who had competed for the previous picture in November.
Painted in the artist's characteristic stylised format (which critics call 'Hollywood' fantasies), The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra depicted an imagined scene of the famous lovers' first encounter in 41BC. The 2ft 2in x 3ft (66 x 91cm) oil on panel had previously been owned by Allen Funt, the American creator of the prank television show Candid Camera, and had last sold at auction at Christie's London for £780,000 in June 1993.
Once again, this painting apparently benefitted from being displayed concurrently with the Imps & Mods sales at New York, vindicating Sotheby's decision to move their 19th century European Art sale forward by a fortnight.
The Imps & Mods auctions themselves were not without their stand-out prices, although the general feeling was that the results had been somewhat disappointing.
With a weaker selection of works than other recent series, the combined hammer total for the sales at Sotheby's and Christie's, including day sales, was $345.4m (£220m). This was less than both the November series which raised $465.5m (£304.3m), and the equivalent series last year which came in at $519m (£355m) - in no small part helped by the record $95m (£65.1m) Picasso at Christie's.
This time again, Christie's took the two highest prices as both Claude Monet's (1840-1926) Les Peupliers and Maurice de Vlaminck's (1876-1958) Paysage de Banlieue made $20m (£12.7m) at their evening sale on May 4.
The Monet from 1891, depicting a line of poplar trees, sold to a US private buyer on low estimate, underbid by an Asian buyer on the phone, while the colourful de Vlaminck landscape from 1905, which was being sold by hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, was knocked down to New York dealers Acquavella, who had originally sold it to Cohen in 2002.
The estimate was $18m-25m and the price was a record for the artist.
Depicting the Parisian suburb of Chatou, it was helped thanks to its bright palette and early date - 1905 was the year before the dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased the entire stock of Vlaminck's studio, something that allowed him to become a full-time artist.
Overall, Christie's evening sale made a hammer total of $136.5m (£86.9m), below the $163m-232m presale estimate with 47 of the 57 lots (82 per cent) finding buyers.
Sotheby's evening sale the night before also came in below its $159m-230m presale estimate. Their hammer total was $149.2m (£95m) with 44 of the 59 lots selling (75 per cent).
The highest price here was the $19m (£12.1m) for Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) Femmes lisant (Deux personnages) which sold to a private collector in the room (thought to be an Asian buyer) although well below its $25m low estimate.
Picasso was the dominant artist in the sale with eight of the ten works getting away and providing over a third of the total. The three Picassos from the collection of socialite Dodie Rosekrans made $8.5m (£5.41m), $7m (£4.46m) and $5.2m (£3.31m) apiece.
The strongest competition at Sotheby's however came for a large oil on canvas of two nudes in a classical setting by Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). Estimated at $3m-5m, Les Cariatides was knocked down at a record $8m (£5.1m) to the Gagosian Gallery on behalf of a private collector against telephone interest bidding through members of staff from Sotheby's Russian art department.
Also selling at Sotheby's was Paul Gauguin's (1848-1903) sculpture Jeune Tahitienne. Having previously been withdrawn from sale last November, the head made from hardwood and shell on the artist's first trip to Tahiti between 1890-93, was offered here with a $10m-15m estimate after the vendor had been issued with a third-party guarantee. It sold for $10m (£6.37m), a record for Gauguin sculpture.
By Alex Capon
£1 = $1.57