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Picasso sells for $40 million in austerity-proof art market

By Jim Boulden, CNN and Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Picasso painting sells for $40 million Tuesday; Gaugin could go for $16 million Wednesday
  • Total sales at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale in London top $112
  • Market continues to hold strong for the modern master despite austerity
  • Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's Europe: "Now is a good time to sell major works of art"

London, England (CNN) -- A 1932 painting by Picasso sold for $40 million at auction Tuesday -- over $10 million more than the highest pre-sale estimate.

Pablo Picasso's "La Lecture," was projected to sell for between $19 million (£12 million) and $29 million (£18 million) at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale in London.

Prior to the auction, the auction house said the positive estimate for the show's star lot points to a robust market for modern art. Total sales at the auction topped $112 million (£69 million).

"The market is exceptionally healthy at the moment -- but also very price sensitive," said Sotheby's Senior International Specialist Alexander Platon. Sales are looking good for 2011, he added.

It's a trend echoed at rival auction house, Christie's, where "Still Life With Hope," a 1901 painting by Paul Gauguin referencing friend and fellow painter Vincent van Gogh with images of sunflowers, will go under the hammer Wednesday for between $11 million (£7 million) and $16 million (£10 million).

"The price levels of these works of art (at Christie's) have not only held, they've risen," Jussi Pylkkanen, President of Christie's Europe told CNN.

Art market opens in London
Art masterpieces on auction at Christie's

"Every indicator tells you now is a good time to sell major works of art, as it is a good time to buy," he said.

Christie's clocked $5 billion in global sales in 2010, a record for the 245-year-old auction house.

Many eyes will be on the February sale, which will set the tone for sales in the coming year, according to Pylkkanen.

The painting depicts Picasso's young lover Marie-Therese Walter, whom he met in 1927 when she was just 17 years old and while he was already married to Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova.

The prolific Spanish painter was entranced by Walter, who is described in Sotheby's auction catalogue as a "voluptuous blonde."

"Picasso was madly in love with her," said Platon. "All that really is so obvious in the painting, in the way it's done so delicately and so sensitively," he continued. It is exhibited in the same room as a painting by Picasso of his then wife, Olga.

The artist continues to be a big draw for serious collectors of modern art.

Every indicator tells you now is a good time to sell major works of art, as it is a good time to buy
--Jussi Pylkkanen, President of Christie's Europe
  • Pablo Picasso
  • London
  • Auctions

A larger painting of Marie-Therese Walter from the same year, entitled "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," was sold last year at Christie's in New York for $106 million, a record for Picasso's work.

Several paintings by the artist are being offered Wednesday at Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale.

It "tells a lot about the market," said Giovanna Bertazzoni, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie's, of the presence of Picasso works from across several decades and styles, priced from £200,000 ($300,000) to £2 million ($3 million).

Not only is the market for his works "strong," it is also, she said, "quite deep, because people are looking for (them) quite aggressively."

She said that Gauguin's painting, "Still Life With Hope," is particularly special because it is "so layered." It contains references to other artists including Vincent van Gogh, Puvis de Chavannes and Edgar Degas, even reproducing paintings by the latter two.

"So it's full of homages and nods and at the same time is very decorative and monumental, so it's pretty special for this auction," she said.

Other highlights of the sale include a 1919 painting by Henri Matisse entitled "Femme au fauteuil," which is estimated to sell for between £1 million ($1.6 million) and £1.5 million ($2.4 million).

Hammers are poised at both auction houses, and Bertazzoni at Christie's anticipates "good, strong battles" for the work up for sale.

With confidence from both auction houses, 2011 could well be another record year for sales in the upper end of the art market.