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Christie's record-breaking art sale kicks off 2014 London auction season

A Christie's employee poses with Mario Merz's untitled artwork at Christie's Mayfair gallery in London February 5, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGre
A Christie's employee poses with Mario Merz's untitled artwork at Christie's Mayfair gallery in London February 5, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGre

By Julia Fioretti

LONDON (Reuters) - The high-end art market kicked off 2014 with a bang when sales at Christie's impressionist, modern and surrealist art auction set a new record high for any London sale on Tuesday evening.

Staggeringly high prices for art at the top end of the market have made headlines in recent years, as an expanding class of super-rich collectors in emerging markets and easy money from the world's central banks have spurred prices to ever higher levels.

Christie's Tuesday sale, which opened a series of auctions to be held in London in February, showed the top-end art market was still sizzling.

Despite a legal setback just before the sale, which resulted in the auction house having to withdraw a Miró collection estimated to be worth 30 million pounds ($49 million), the evening sale fetched 177 million pounds, comfortably beating the pre-sale estimate of 113 million to 163 million pounds.

The top price was paid for a 1915 painting by Juan Gris, "Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux", which fetched 35 million pounds, setting a new world record price for the artist and for any Cubist work.

The large-scale painting was being offered at auction for the first time and came from the collection of a Swiss, who were close to many of the artists whose work they bought, Christie's said.

Picasso's "Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil", depicting the woman the artist would marry six years later and one of his most important muses, was the second most expensive painting, snapped up for 17 million pounds.

A total of 35 works of art sold for over 1 million pounds, and three other artists set records for their work, Christie's said.

"DEPTH OF BIDDING"

"We are thrilled with tonight's results, which represent the highest total for a sale held in London in any category," said Jay Vincze, head of the impressionist and modern art department at Christie's.

"The energy of the sale and the depth of bidding was exceptional, particularly on the top lots."

The Swiss collection, which also featured the third most expensive piece of the night, Piet Mondrian's "Composition No. 2 with Blue and Yellow", was sold for 57 million pounds, almost doubling the high end of its pre-sale estimate.

Christie's drew attention to the booming art market in November last year when it sold Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" for $142.4 million, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

Other notable pieces at Tuesday's sale were Magritte's "Les chasseurs au bord de la nuit (The hunters at the edge of night)" which sold for 6.5 million pounds, and Monet's "Eglise de Varengeville, soleil couchant" which went to a private Asian buyer for 5.7 million pounds.

Only 11 of the 76 works offered failed to sell.

The London-based auction house smashed previous records in 2013 when it reported sales of $7.13 billion for the year thanks to an increasing pool of super-wealthy collectors and rising Asian demand.

The impressionist and modern sales continue on Wednesday with Christie's day sale and rival auction house Sotheby's sale of modern, impressionist and surrealist art in the evening.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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