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Picasso nude sells for world record $106m

A Picasso nude once marvelled at by Hollywood stars as they partied in the home of its millionaire owner but which was only ever shown once in public in the past 50 years has set a new record price for a work of art sold at auction.

The 1932 painting of the great Spanish artist's muse and mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was sold for $106.5m (£70.3m) at Christie's in New York after frantic bidding by more than half a dozen would-be buyers.

The battle by monied collectors to obtain the vivid work, entitled Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, was interpreted as evidence that the super-rich, buoyed by recent strong performances on the world's stock markets, are returning to auction rooms to spend their surplus cash on the most covetable masterpieces.

With a "modest" pre-sale estimate of between $70m and $90m, the price of the oil painting soon surpassed expectations and it took nine minutes of bidding between eight clients before the decisive offer of $95m was made by an anonymous telephone buyer.

Once the Christie's commission was added, the final price was $106.5m – surpassing the previous record of $104.3m for a Giacometti sculpture set at Sotheby's in London three months ago. The selling price means the Picasso cost £21,537 for every square inch of paint and canvas.

Conor Jordan, head of impressionist and modern art at Christie's, said: "Tonight's spectacular results showed the great confidence in the marketplace and the enthusiasm with which it welcomes top quality works."

Measuring more than 1.5m by 1.2m and completed when the artist was judged to have been at the height of his powers, the Picasso depicts Ms Walter as the Greek nymph Daphne, who was turned into a laurel tree, with the then-married artist hovering over his lover as a shadowy outline.

It was bought in the 1950s by the late Californian art collectors Frances and Sidney Brody, who hung the picture in the living room of their mansion in the Los Angeles hills. The couple turned their home into a salon for Hollywood's glitterati, entertaining friends such as Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper. Walt Disney was a neighbour.

The Picasso was put on public exhibition once, in 1961, to mark the 80th anniversary of the artist's birth.

After the death of Ms Brody last November, the family trust decided to put a collection of 69 art works up for sale, raising a total of $335m last night – the third highest in Christie's history.

The auction house said there had been heavy participation from buyers in Russia, China and the Middle East.

The immortalised mistress

Marie-Thérèse Walter was 17 when she first met Picasso outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. It was January 1927; Picasso was 45 and living with his Russian wife, Olga, and their six-year-old son. The artist struck up a secret relationship with the curvaceous blonde. She became his muse, appearing in several works.

For years she lived close to the Picassos, at one time even living opposite the family in a street just off the Champs Elysées. In 1935 Picasso's wife left him and Marie-Thérèse gave birth to his first daughter, Maya. However, by the following year, Picasso had moved on to a new French mistress, the photographer and artist Dora Maar.

He fondly recalled a cat-fight between the two mistresses in his studio as one of his "choicest memories". Marie-Thérèse hanged herself in 1977, four years after Picasso's death.

Cheryl Roussel