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The high totals and solid selling rates at the evening sales held by Sotheby's and Christie's this week were largely down to a healthier supply of fresh material. But confidence also appears to have been bolstered by the rising demand from collectors and investors for blue-chip works.

Christie's sale yesterday night was led by a portrait by Amedeo Modigliani's (1884-1920), Jeanne Hebuterne (au chapeau) which depicted his common-law wife, the subject of many of his most arresting paintings. From 1919, it was painted two years after the artist had met the 19-year-old Hebuterne and one year before Modigliani died in poverty in Paris of tubercular meningitis.

The 3ft x 21.25in (92 x 54cm) oil on canvas had previously hung alongside other portraits of the same subject in the bedroom of writer, dealer and Modigliani patron Paul Guillaume. More recently, it had sold in May 1997 at Sotheby's New York for $8.7m (5.34m), and then again at Sotheby's London in June 2006 at £14.6m. 

Consigned by a New York vendor, it was estimated at £16m-22m and drew four bidders on the night. It eventually came down to a two-way phone battle before it was knocked down at £24m to an anonymous buyer bidding through a Russian-speaking member of Christie's staff.

Overall, the sale generated a hammer total of £119.8m (including the Surrealist art section of the evening auction) which was comfortably within the presale estimate of £98.4m-146.6m. Of the 74 lots offered, 66 sold (89%).

The sale also saw a record for any female artist at auction after an intense and prolonged bidding contest emerged on Après le déjeuner by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895).

The impressionist work depicting a woman sitting by a table drew had been estimated at £1.5m-2.5m, an attractive pitch in light of the fact that it had made $3.25 (£2m) at Christie's New York in May 1997.

Here, 15 years on, at least five bidders were in contention but, in the end, it also came down to a competition between two interested parties on the telephone before it was knocked down at £6.2m. The buyer was operating through one of the auctioneer's New York-based specialists.

Christie's international director and head of Impressionist & Modern art Jay Vincze told ATG after the sale that it was the rarity and directness of the 1881 oil on canvas that gave it special appeal. The artist is also commanding extra attention at the moment as she is currently the poster girl for the Royal Academy's major exhibition of works by her lover Edouard Manet.

Picasso Portrait

Meanwhile, Sotheby's evening sale on February 5 posted a £106.5m hammer total, including the surrealist art lots. This figure was also within the £103.2m-149m presale estimate and was the second-highest total for an evening sale in this category at Sotheby's London.

Of the 61 lots on offer, 52 found buyers (85%).

The top lot was Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) portrait of Marie-Thérèse, Femme Assise Près D'Une Fenêtre, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £25.5m, the highest individual price of the Imps & Mods auction series.

The 1932 work came from a European vendor and was estimated at £25m-35. It had been subject to a third-party guarantee (meaning it was always bound to sell) and the buyer at the auction was believed to be Asian.

Also carrying third-party guarantees were three fine works on paper by Egon Schiele (1890-1918) which were being sold by the Leopold Museum in Vienna to finance a final restitution settlement agreed last year over Schiele's seminal painting Houses by the Sea.

Selling to three different buyers and making a combined £12.4m, uppermost amongst them was Liebespaar (Selbstdarstellung Mit Wally), a gouache and pencil of the artist with his lover and model Walburga (Wally) Neuzil which had the same 1914 date as Houses by the Sea. The double portrait represented the emotional turmoil involved in the ending of the long and intense relationship between the artist and Wally.

Estimated at £6.5m-8.5m, it drew plenty of interest both in the room and on the phone before it sold to an Asian private buyer on the phone at £7m, setting an auction record for a work on paper by the artist.

The previous lot, a Schiele self-portrait in the same medium entitled Selbstdarstellung in grunem Hemd mit geschlossenen Augen (Self Portrait in Green Shirt with Eyes Closed), also saw competition and went over its £1.8m-2.5m estimate. It was knocked down to a European private buyer on the phone at £4.5m.

The third work in the group was an erotic crayon line drawing of a girl lying on her back that made £900,000, also selling on the phone to a buyer with a separate paddle number.

It was a more mixed evening for Claude Monet (1840-1926) at Sotheby's.

One of his water lily paintings, Nymphéas avec reflets de hautes herbes dating from 1914-17, sold below its £12m-18m for £8m to a single phone bidder, but the top lot from the 5 works formerly in the collection of the late Earl of Jersey was Monet's Le Givre à Giverny which went for an above-estimate £7.8m to a European private buyer and was an auction record for a snow scene by the artist.