A multilingual battle where money talks

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The world of London art auctions has never known a summer like it.

Inside the octagonal Great Room at Christie's auction house yesterday, a Japanese girl in a white party frock and glitter headband skipped from masterpiece to masterpiece. Near by, her parents were locked in combat with a Russian couple. The object of their desire was a Renoir.

The murmur of diverse languages - English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Arabic - grew noticeably louder as a Japanese man in dark glasses and polo shirt made the winning bid for Buste de Jeune Fille au Chapeau Blanc. The price: more than £200,000.

All day the 150 bidders present fought unseen rivals, as Christie's staff passed on the telephone bids of art collectors across the world. The attention of the international art world was firmly focused on one room in central London.

The fast and furious selling at the auction house's "Impressionist and modern works on paper sale" began against a backdrop of exquisite paintings and a currency converter board tabulating the rising bids in six currencies, from yen to Hong Kong dollars. The sale included a group of 40 post-Impressionists and early 20th-century ceramics and porcelain, featuring artists as diverse as Rodin, Vuillard and Picasso.

A tussle for Henri Martin's oil painting Jeunes Femmes Sous La Tonnelle soon got under way between two rows of telephone bidders and the open floor. The battle was won by a Russian couple, who claimed what would be the second highest-priced painting in the sale for £512,000.

The Russians, evidently collectors of Martin, won again with the purchase of Vue de Puy l'Eveque. A telephone bidder, liaising with an American collector, was forced to admit defeat. "I'm really sorry we didn't get it," he said.

The Russians then bought a Rodin vase, Les Limbes, signed by the artist, with a composition of a bathing woman on its front.

Wearing gold jewellery and carrying Yves Saint Laurent shopping bags, Russian women put in bids alongside a number of Japanese collectors. Many carried catalogues for the Sotheby's evening sale today, as well as a Japanese print auction at Christie's. Some had just turned out for the spectacle.

New bidders floated in and out of the room, while others surveyed the master-pieces that hung in the anteroom, due to be sold at yesterday evening's sale of contemporary art and post-war pieces, which included works by Picasso, Matisse and Degas.

The dominance of collectors from eastern Europe, the Middle East and Far East was indicative of a growing trend in middle-market auctions. Jay Vincze, the head of sale at Christie's, said: "As last season showed, a considerable number of new buyers from emerging markets are competing with established collectors for works in the mid-range section (£50,000 to £300,000)."

A Christie's auction specialist watching the spectacle said that, while the market had traditionally been dominated by European and American collectors, it had an "extraordinary depth to it that makes it truly global".

"You only have to look around this room to see," said the specialist. "This is a marketplace for the rich from across the world who have a passion for art."