Love affair with BritArt and rising markets bring record sales at auction houses

After the price-fixing scandals, stock market slump and the Iraq war dented the confidence of the world's wealthy, a record week in London's auction houses suggests that conspicuous consumption is back.

Nearly £130m worth of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art was sold in just four days at Sotheby's and Christie's last week - the most successful winter art sales in the UK in living memory.

BritArt contributed to the most successful sale of contemporary art yet seen in Europe at Sotheby's on Thursday night. The sale's total of £14.7m, higher than the most ambitious expectations, included a new auction record of £1.29m for the French artist Nicolas de Staël for his painting Méditeranée.

Two days earlier, Sotheby's sale of Impressionist, modern and Surrealist art saw eight lots reach more than £1m each. Its total for the week was £61.1m.

Christie's enjoyed its best-ever result for Surrealist art, taking more than £9m and setting a new record for a work on paper by Magritte when Le retour sold for just under £1m.

A Christie's spokeswoman said it had been an "extremely strong" week with sales of £66.2m ($121m). "To total more than $100m is very significant for London. That's a magic figure," she admitted.

"It wasn't just the top lots. What was interesting was there are a lot of new buyers coming in as well as the more established connoisseurs, so works of paper from £5,000 upwards did really well."

Philip Hook, Sotheby's director of Impressionist and Modern art, said: "People are definitely feeling richer and more optimistic about the economic future. It's a reflection of the gentle recovery in the stock market.

"A number of collections that didn't come on to the market last year because people were wary of the war have come on to the market now," he added.

Britain's love affair with BritArt meant that a new generation of young and affluent art lovers were boosting interest in contemporary art, which was probably more sought-after than it had had ever been. A pot by the Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry sold for £36,000 at Sotheby's, more than twice the estimate of £15,000.

An Egon Schiele gouache, Madchen mit Gruner Schurze, went for more than £1.5m, compared with an expected price of £500,000 to £700,000. A view of the small village of Vétheuil by Monet went for £2.7m

At Christie's, a rare set of Andy Warhol's screenprints of Marilyn Monroe went for a world record of £430,850, while the top price was taken by a Cézanne, Grand bouquet de fleurs, which reached a total of £4.48m.

But Mr Hook said the market was unlikely ever to return to the heady days of the late 1980s.

"That was a speculator-driven market in which the Japanese played a big part. It created a bubble that was unsustainable," he said.

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