Auction failure sends art market into free fall: Half the pictures at Impressionist and modern sale left unsold as buyers decline to meet asking prices. Geraldine Norman reports (CORRECTED)

CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 29 JUNE 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

THE ART MARKET followed the stock market into free fall at Christie's last night, with only an occasional connoisseur ignoring world economics and expressing his passion for art by paying through the nose.

Lord Hindlip, Christie's joke-a minute-chairman, had to tease the bids out of a packed room - the world and his wife always turn out for sales of Impressionist and modern pictures, whether or not they hope to buy. Maybe they are attracted by the chance of hearing such huge sums of money intoned over a microphone.

There were 49 expensive art works for sale; 25 of them found buyers and 24 did not.

David Sylvester, the art historian, was one of the few undaunted connoisseurs. But he had to concede defeat in a ferocious bidding battle that carried a tiny head and shoulders study of Julie Belleli by Edgar Degas, painted in 1858-59, to pounds 408,500 where only pounds 140,000- pounds 180,000 was looked for. One of Christie's New York staff signalled the winning bid, no doubt on behalf of a rich US collector.

There was one other notable success, Joan Miro's Personnages, Oiseaux et Etoiles of 1946 at pounds 1,871,500. After working in Spain, mostly on gouaches and drawings, Miro found his mature style in a burst of confident activity in 1946. This picture has everything a Miro admirer could desire - colour, matchstick men, eyes and birds.

On such a night it could also be considered a success that a beautiful Modigliani managed to find a buyer. It was a head and shoulders portrait of Hanka Zborowska, his landlady's daughter, with a candle beside her, and a telephone bidder was prepared to pay Christie's low estimate at pounds 1,486,500.

But those were the exceptions. A Claude Monet landscape, a sweeping view with the village of Vetheuil in the distance, which had been expected to reach pounds 1.5m to pounds 2m was left unsold at pounds 750,000; a Vlaminck view, Bords de la Seine, painted in 1906 in blazing Fauve colours - on this occasion the nickname Fauve or 'wild beast' really applied - stopped at pounds 650,000 when it was expected to get to pounds 1.2m-1.6m.

The star lot of the sale also bit the dust. Braque's Atelier V was left standing at pounds 1.8m - pounds 2.5m- 3.5m was expected. The painting belongs to a famous series of eight abstracted renderings of his studio that he painted between 1949 and 1956 - this one is dated 1949-51. Apart from his Cubist paintings, this late series is regarded as the artist's greatest achievement.

But the picture was painted in tones of grey and brown and did not have obvious decorative appeal. The last of the Atelier series was sold at Christie's in New York on 11 May 1992, deep in the recession, for dollars 7.7m ( pounds 5m) or double what was hoped for at last night's sale - but that one used bright colours.

The most important accumulation of toy soldiers and figures to appear at auction fetched pounds 100,000 at Christie's yesterday. The sale attracted more than 250 collectors from around the world. A Californian collector, Michael Schreter, paid the sale's top price of pounds 7,158 for the only known surviving 'Blondin' cyclist, a 19th- century toy.

CORRECTION

David Sylvester, the art writer, whom I reported as having bid on a Degas portrait at Christie's on Monday night, asks me to point out that he was bidding on behalf of a friend and is not himself a collector of Impressionist pictures.

(Photograph omitted)

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