Art Market: Monet and Manet bids steal show

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IN TWO vertiginous bidding battles, a Manet and a Monet painting soared to unlooked-for prices at Sotheby's major summer auction last night. Both topped pounds 4m, demonstrating there is still life in the market.

On each occasion there appeared to be only two determined bidders carrying the prices to these heights. Both pictures were bought by the Sotheby's director, Michael Bing, who was relaying bids from a private collector connected to the auction by telephone. His competitors on both pictures appear to have been Japanese.

He paid the top price of the night for one of Monet's famous series of paintings of poplars, Peupliers au bord de l'Epte, Effet du Soir, which fetched pounds 4,841,500, well ahead of the pounds 2m- pounds 3m Sotheby's had forecast. The battle was waged between Bing's telephone bidder and a Japanese competitor standing almost at his elbow.

The second sensation of the evening was the pounds 4,401,500 (estimate pounds 3m) paid for a Manet study of a blond barmaid behind her counter at the Folies-Bergere painted in the summer of 1881; it is a preparatory sketch for his famous Bar aux Folies-Bergere now in the Courtauld collection - possibly the greatest Impressionist painting in Britain. On this occasion Bing's telephone fought a telephone manned by John Tancock, who represents Sotheby's in Japan and was probably acting for a Japanese bidder.

The third major painting in the sale, Frederic Bazille's Tireuse de Cartes failed to find a buyer; bidding reached pounds 640,000 but pounds 800,000 to pounds 1.2m were hoped for. Bazille is the rarest of all the Impressionists; he was a student friend of Renoir's and was killed in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, aged only 29. The painting had been sent for sale by his family.

The Sotheby sale was much more successful than Christie's the night before; most of the paintings had not been on the market for 60 or 70 years and several were unusually attractive. At Sotheby's 18 out of 52 lots offered were left unsold while roughly half had been left unsold at Christie's.

There were many random variations in price, but it was noticeable no-one wanted to buy Corots, however good they were and bad Renoirs were selling again. You can tell there's life in the market when mediocre Renoirs find buyers, Michel Strauss of Sotheby's pointed out.

(Photograph omitted)