With the market still bruised by the recession, their fortune-telling skills had been hampered. Although collectors from the United States and Japan were in town, the consensus was that there was nothing of outstanding quality at either Christie's or Sotheby's.
One source said it was a catch-22 situation, with potential sellers holding on to important works and buyers nervous of investing until certain that the market has bottomed out.
But the buoyant bidding and multi-million-dollar prices for Matisse and Degas at the New York Impressionist sales earlier this month had perhaps injected some confidence in buyers.
As the buyers filed out of the sale room, one man said: 'I didn't think much of the pictures but they certainly got good prices.' And a noted collector expressed surprise at figures paid for 'some of the more rotten pictures'.
Christie's star lot was a painting by Henri Rousseau - the most significant work by him to have appeared at auction for 20 years. His striking portrait of Joseph Brummer, the art dealer and collector, was estimated to fetch pounds 1m to pounds 2m. For some dealers, it was a work that reflected the volatile market. 'If it is bought in, people will say it was 'boring'; if it just makes its reserve, they'll say it was 'difficult'; if it makes a good price, they'll say it was an important picture,' one dealer said. In the event, the painting sold for pounds 2.97m - breaking the previous record of pounds 880,000.
Dufy's Les Deux Modeles, 1930, a vibrant Matisse-esque image awash with a Mediterranean-sea blue was also on sale. The picture, exhibited at the Hayward Gallery's 1983 Dufy show, made pounds 463,500, just above top estimate.
The painting depicts Dufy's favourite model, standing and reclining on the floor, in his studio at the Impasse de Guelma in Montmartre. It has been described as a painting in which Dufy reaffirmed his passion for colour and his delight in the feminine nude. As Bryan Robertson, a Dufy scholar, wrote: 'Never has any artist loved women more than Dufy did . . . women inspired Dufy to quite a different level of emotional response . . .'
Although some noted that in the past the evening Impressionist sales would not have included a watercolour, Christie's had a particularly important example by Kandinsky.
The busy abstract was given an estimate of between pounds 800,000 and pounds 1.2m because it dates from around 1912-13, the artist's most desirable period, shortly after he produced his first purely abstract work. However, it sold for only pounds 881,500.
There was particular interest in whether Sisley's delicate La Manufacture de Sevres would make its top estimate of pounds 750,000. Since peaking in 1989, when one of his pictures fetched more than pounds 1.5m (dollars 3m), Sisley's work has, as one dealer put it, 'gone off the boil dramatically'. It went to a Japanese bidder for pounds 771,500.
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