£152m art sale sets British record – yet onlookers leave disappointed

It was expected to be Britain's most valuable art auction yet, and the chattering classes who had turned out to Christie's in style simply oozed money. Yet by the end of the evening, everyone was a bit disappointed that more had not been spent.

Despite the Picassos and Monets knocking up sales totalling more than £152m, beating the record £146.8m set at Sotheby's in February, 16 lots failed to sell – including the star item.

Claude Monet's Nympheas had been anticipated to attract bids of at least £30m, and being the largest of the French Impressionist's 250 water lily paintings, that seemed a sure bet. But when the gaville came down it remained tantalisingly short of the reserve price, at £29m.

As the evening wore on 15 more lots were passed over, with the £230m haul that Christie's had hoped for looking further and further out of reach.

Towards the end of the evening vacant chairs began emerging in the previously packed auction room. Like football supporters who know their team cannot win, one by one they began to creep out – perhaps they realised they could still catch the end of Germany vs Ghana in the World Cup. It was only a small smattering of applause after the sale of the final lot.

Thomas Seydoux, international head of impressionism and modern art at Christie's, admitted surprise that the sale had been "quite measured". "I was absolutely convinced that we were going to sell it," he said of the Nympheas. "I'm disappointed because I think it's absolutely fantastic. We had four bidders on the phone but no one pulled the trigger. Sometimes it happens.

"We couldn't get anybody to start the bidding. People think about it – sometimes they think about it too much – and you don't get things going."

The signs had been good early on, however. Henry Moore's Maquette for King and Queen, a two-figured statuette small enough to grace even the most modest mantelpiece, went under the hammer for £1.5m, three times the minimum guide price.

Four lots later came one of the big guns, Picasso's Portrait d'Angel Fernandez de Soto, more commonly known as The Absinthe Drinker. The subject in this bewitchingly ghoulish blue portrait looked as unimpressed as ever as bidders eventually pushed his price just above the reserve to £31m.

The room was now beginning to buzz a little. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe, leaned first to one side of his rostrum and then the other, his arms splaying out elegantly towards every corner of the room a la Charles Foster Kane addressing an election rally.

An ostentatious flick of the wrist before each hammer showed Pylkkanen was enjoying himself. He even indulged in some cheeky humour, pretending to have seen a bid from a man who walked into the room late and looking a bit lost.

The arrival in the room of Henri Matisse's Nu a la chaise lounge – which had not been seen in public since the year after it was painted – was another special moment. It went for £5.9m.

But the mood seemed to change when Monet's Nympheas was taken away by the big-gloved handlers unsold. After the quiet brought on by the tension of the bidding, the snap of the gaville gave way to gasps. From here on, the earlier mood of excitement began to slacken.

Pylkkanen – flanked to his left by Joan Miro's Femme et oiseaux dans la nuit and to his right by Picasso's startling Le baiser – carried on undeterred to the last. "Holding on?" he asked of one telephone bidder. "I love to hold on."

Those beginning to gather in the hall outside seemed to have enjoyed themselves too, all kissing one another on both cheeks. At the close, Pylkkanen said plainly: "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. See you all tomorrow." Even in the high-powered world of art auctions, there is always tomorrow.

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