Once the flagship sector, the Imps & Mods sales have now fallen behind Contemporary art auctions over the last few years in terms of their contribution to overall turnover but here the market's major names provided a real boon to the totals.
This was particularly the case at Sotheby's evening sale on November 4 which posted a hammer total of $370.6m (£242.2m) and was the highest grossing auction in the company's history. It was led by two prize sculptures.
A bronze cast of Alberto Giacometti's (1901-1966) Chariot had the greatest expectations before the sale and there were suggestions it would sell for over $100m. The auctioneers did not publish an estimate but billed the sculpture as "the masterwork of the artist's career, and one of the seminal achievements of modern art".
It was one of six casts from 1951-52 of which only two remain in private hands. It was also one of only two versions which the artist had painted to enhance the face, lips and body (the other is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City). The technique alludes to the polychrome empyreal funerary figures in ancient Egyptian statuary.
Standing 4ft 9in (1.45m) high, it had been in the same private collection since 1973 and the auctioneers had guaranteed the lot without third party interest - it was one of eight lots in the sale for which this was the case.
In the event, it sold at $90m (£58.8m) to an anonymous buyer which, although it represented the fifth highest all-time auction price, was slightly less than had been predicted. It did however set both a record for Giacometti and a record for any sculpture sold at auction, marginally outstripping the £58m ($89.3m) seen for L'homme qui marche I which sold at Sotheby's London in February 2010 (ATG's records are based on hammer prices using the bank selling exchange rate on the day of the sale).
Another guaranteed lot which was also offered without a published estimate (rumoured to be in the region of $45m) but drawing much better competition was Amedeo Modigliani's (1884-1920) stone sculpture of the elongated head of a goddess.
Carved in 1911-12, Tête was one of only 27 confirmed Modigliani sculptures (17 of which are at museums) and this example was considered possibly the finest remaining in private hands. According to Simon Shaw, Co-Head of Sotheby's Worldwide Impressionist & Modern Art Department, the work had a "truly mesmerizing aura".
It measured 2ft 5in (73cm) high, making it slightly larger than another very similar Tête sculpture that fetched 38.5m Euros (£33.5m) at Christie's Paris in June 2010, a sum that set a record auction price in France. Four years on, the market has expanded even further. Three telephone bidders were in contention for this lot until it was eventually knocked down to one of their number at $63m (£41.2m).
The auctioneers claimed a record of the artist, although this was only true using premium-inclusive prices - Modigliani's painting Nu Assis sur un Divan (La Belle Romaine) took $65.5m (£42.8m) hammer in the same rooms in November 2010 although the buyer's premium has increased since then.
The leading painting at the Sotheby's sale, Vincent Van Gogh's (1853-1890) Still life, vase with daisies and poppies also saw strong competition taking it above a $30m-50m estimate before it was knocked down at $55m (£35.9m) to an Asian private buyer. The highest sum for a still life by the artist.
Overall, Sotheby's sale saw 58 of the 73 lots getting away (79%).
Manet at Christie's
Christie's evening sale the following night was a much slimmer affair with only 39 lots which generated a $143.9m hammer total. It posted a higher sell-through rate with 35 lots (90%) finding buyers.
The main focus here was on Le Printemps ('Spring') by Edouard Manet (1832-1883), a celebrated Impressionist painting which came fresh to the market having been acquired in 1909 and descended to the vendors (described as a 'private American foundation').
Dating from 1881, the 2ft 5in x 20in (74 x 52cm) oil on canvas was exhibited at the Paris Salon the following year along with Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, the work often described as the artist's masterpiece. Spring was intended to be the first of a series of four portraits of Parisian women representing the seasons although only this canvas and Autumn had been completed when the artist died in 1883.
The rarity of great Impressionist pictures on the market meant that there was plenty of speculation that major collectors and institutions would try to acquire this work. On the day, against a $25m-35m estimate, the bidding came from the Americas, Europe and Asia, according to Christie's, and it was eventually knocked down at $58m (£37.9m) in the room to New York dealer Otto Naumann who was bidding on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The sum was a substantial record for Manet, overtaking a self portrait that took a low-estimate £20m at Sotheby's London in June 2010.
The picture will now join other major works by Manet in the Getty including the earlier Portrait of Madame Brunet and Portrait of Julien de la Rochenoire from 1882.
Thanks to these major lots, the hammer total for the Imps & Mods series was $593m (£387.6m) which exceeded the $533.5m (£348.7m) from the equivalent series last year. Even still, these figures are likely to exceeded at this week's Contemporary art sales in New York which are almost certain to be an even more bumper affair.
The buyer's premium at Sotheby's and Christie's was 25/20/12%.
£1 = $1.53