That Walter Annenberg, the former US ambassador to London, last month paid dollars 57m for Van Gogh's Wheat Field with Cypresses, donating it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, had lifted spirits.
Still, top pictures have made top prices throughout the recession, though dealers felt that neither Christie's nor Sotheby's have 'masterpieces' to write home about. 'There are no really good pictures to lift the sale,' said one dealer; nothing like the pounds 18.5m Cezanne in New York last month.
On the other hand, the saleroom last night was packed: even Japanese faces were among the international dealers who are in town.
The most expensive picture was Renoir's delicate Jeune Fille portant une Corbeille de Fleurs, 1888, one of three versions. Bidding leapt from pounds 2m to pounds 3.8m within seconds before the pace slowed, creeping up hesitantly to the final figure, pounds 5.72m (estimate pounds 4m-pounds 5m). 'That's a positive sign for the top end of the market,' muttered one man, as the hammer fell. One dealer described it as 'a damn good picture', though he added: 'If I were a museum director, I'd buy it; for collectors, though, she's not pretty enough.' It was bought by a telephone bidder.
Christie's had pinned high hopes on Monet's Les Berges de la Seine a Lavacourt, which dates from 1878 when the artist was still unable to make a financial success of his painting. The picture, estimated these days at pounds 2.5m-pounds 3m, was, however, withdrawn at the last minute 'due to a dispute within the vendor's family'.
Bidders were seduced by Matisse's intimate Nu au Turban (Henriette), which made pounds 2.42m (estimate pounds 2m-pounds 3m). The portrait, painted in 1921, in Matisse's sunlit hotel room in Nice, is an intimate depiction of Henriette Darricarrere, 19, the artist's most important model between 1921 and 1927.
And buyers could not resist one of Modigliani's typically elongated portraits of women, Tete de Jeune Fille, considered one of the artist's first successful images of a female sitter. The picture made pounds 2.86m (estimate pounds 2m- pounds 3). The identity of the sitter is unknown: unless his dealer was prepared to pay for professional models, Modigliani preferred using women he met by chance on the streets of Montmartre, where he lived.
The top three sales made seven-figure sums - and although 40 per cent of the lots failed to sell, that compares with 50 per cent of the items in the Impressionist event last year going unsold.