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The most valuable art auction in history

Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh are among the painters whose combined works could fetch £230m

Arifa Akbar
Friday 04 June 2010 00:00 BST

If any more evidence was needed that the art market is fully revived, the auction house Christie's provided it yesterday by announcing the most valuable art auction in history, putting up for sale waterlilies painted by Monet at the height of his fame, a dazzling Picasso from his prized Blue Period and one of Gustav Klimt's last great female portraits.

The event is expected to make £230m in total, with the top two lots – Picasso's Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker) and Monet's Nympheas – each estimated to raise between £30m and £40m.

By 1890, Monet had amassed a fortune with his rising fame, and bought a house in Giverny. Helped by a gardener and a team of assistants, he set about building a lily pond that would eventually dominate his paintings.

In 1909 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, Monet held an exhibition showcasing five of his Nympheas paintings for the first time, receiving international acclaim. The work to be offered at Christie's is the largest of nine painted by Monet in 1906 that have survived. It remained in the collection of the Durand-Ruel family for a number of decades and was acquired by the present owner at Christie's New York in May 2000, when it fetched £13.6m.

Among the 63 works in the 23 June sale is a portrait by Gustav Klimt, Frauenbildnis, and Vincent van Gogh's Parc de l'hopital Saint-Paul, painted in 1889 during the artist's voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, one of the most important periods of his career. It is being offered at auction after having been in the same European collection since the 1960s.

A second work by Picasso, Le baiser, was painted during a particularly fertile period in 1969 and was included in the celebrated exhibition of the artist's work at Palais des Papes in Avignon a year later.

Henri Matisse's Nu à la chaise longue, completed in 1923, has not been seen by the public since the year after it was painted, and is offered at auction for the first time.

The art market bubble burst shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late September 2008, as the economic crisis set in, and some had predicted a slow and painful recovery spanning decades. Yesterday, Christie's suggested the recovery would be a lot faster, with a growing treasure trove of artworks emerging on the market.

Giovanna Bertazzoni, head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie's, said: "The strong results at our auctions over the last year, and during the last six months in particular, have further fuelled the confidence of vendors; we are witnessing a great willingness from clients to consign works of art of the highest quality.

"There is a fierce international demand in the art market, particularly for the rarest and the best, and the market itself is now truly global as illustrated at our auction in New York in May where we saw bidding from Russia, China and the Middle East, as well as from Europe and the Americas."

Charlotte Burns, of The Art Newspaper, said the lavish sums set for the most significant works in this sale were not surprising given the recent price rises.

"Picasso set a world record in New York last May when his 1932 painting Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust sold for $106.5m. His reign as the world's most expensive artist at auction was only briefly interrupted in February when Alberto Giacometti's lifetime bronze sculpture Walking Man I sold for $65m," she said.

"Against such stellar sums, the £30m to £40m estimate for The Absinthe Drinker isn't surprising. The work is quoted by schoolteachers worldwide as a prime example of a work from Picasso's Blue Period, and while the economic crisis is by no means over, the masterpiece market appears to be thriving."

The Absinthe Drinker is making its way back from Christie's Hong Kong, where it formed the centrepiece of a display of highlights from the sale. It is being sold by Andrew Lloyd Webber's art charity following the settlement of a Nazi-era spoliation claim.

The painting was due to have been sold at Christie's New York in November 2006, but was withdrawn after an ownership claim was lodged. Following the settlement of a three-year dispute, the proceeds from the sale will go to the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.

Nympheas, Claude Monet £30m-£40m

A Nympheas is something you have to have if you're an impressionist collector, because they are quintessentially iconic paintings, they're beautiful, they're agreeable, the colours are gorgeous. They really are the impressionist pictures to die for. Monet painted about 250 in total, some of which are fragmentary; this one last sold in the US in 2000 for £14m. At the moment the mega-dealer Gagosian in New York is showing Monet water lilies, including one belonging to the mega-collector hedge funder Steve Cohen. They always fetch huge prices – it really is a very rich man's purchase.

Portrait d'Angel Fernandez de Soto - pablo picasso £30m-£40m

This is from Picasso's Blue Period, which makes it very desirable, and it's a super work with real guts. It's a tougher picture than the others in the sense that it isn't pretty – the subject's curled lip and arrogant air have an immense impact – but it's still fantastic, and the hefty price is probably in line with the market.

Le baiser, Pablo Picasso £8m-£12m

These late Picassos have proved very popular recently. This one last sold in 2003 when it made £2.8m. Late Picassos have enormous wall power – they're big, bold, colourful and instantly recognisable. Picasso was prolific, particularly in his later years, which one might think would negatively affect valuations, but not so – buyers are lapping them up.

Nu la chaise longue, Henri Matisse £5.5m-£8.5m

This is quite a conservatively priced Matisse nude – one sold in 2006 for £12.5m, and another this year in New York for £10m. The great, familiar Matisses are all in museums and never come on the market, so his prices at auction don't reflect his importance. And he has broad appeal – a Matisse flower piece went to a Middle Eastern buyer at the Yves St Laurent sale last year.

La Liseuse, Pablo Picasso £6m-£9m

This is from Picasso's classical period, but look at her hands – they are really badly painted, like a bunch of bananas. It's just not one of his best moments. The £6m-£9m estimate is quite optimistic, but it's difficult to predict these days, and a Picasso is still a Picasso.

Parc de l'hopital Saint-Paul, Vincent van Gogh £8m-£12m

Very few Van Goghs come to auction. This is not a big picture and doesn't have his great wild brushstrokes, but it is attractive and was painted just before his death which is quite poignant.

Les barricades mystérieuses, Rene Magritte £3m-£4m

This is not this painting's first appearance in the saleroom. It was sold in 1991 for £1.5m, offered again in 1994 when it didn't find a buyer, and then sold again in 2003 for £2m. That was seven years ago and the current valuation doesn't look like an unreasonable markup. Magritte is best known for the quality of the image rather than his painting skills, and this is a good example. Surrealism is also a bit of a favourite with auction houses as it has such broad appeal.

Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III), Gustav Klimt £14m-£18m

This lacks Klimt's trademark gold and isn't quite so icon-like as another work which sold for a reported $135m to cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder. But it is a seductive image and one of the last of Klimt's sought-after female portraits.

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