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Cézanne and Modigliani Push Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale to $230 Million

'Les Pommes' by Paul Cezanne on display during a preview
AFP | Getty Images
'Les Pommes' by Paul Cezanne on display during a preview

The first of the big spring auctions began Tuesday night at Sotheby's, where paintings and sculptures by Cézanne, Braque and Léger topped expectations as bidders from 35 countries put money on their walls rather than in the shakier financial markets. The crowd — including the rapper L L Cool J and the New York businessman Donald L. Bryant Jr. — watched as bidders competed for Impressionist and modern artworks.

Because Impressionist and modern art has become increasingly difficult to find these days, collections from estates, which have generally been off the market for decades, are particularly coveted.

The audience also came for a dose of people-watching. All eyes were on the front row, as members of the Nahmad family — the dynasty of dealers with galleries in the Carlyle Hotel in New York and on Cork Street in London — sat in their usual places. Last month, Hillel Nahmad, 34, known as Helly and from New York, was charged by federal prosecutors with playing a leading role in a gambling and money-laundering operation that stretched from Kiev and Moscow to Los Angeles and New York.

Mr. Nahmad, who has denied the charges, was there, along with his brother, Joe, and sister, Marielle Safra, but noticeably absent were their parents, David and Collette, and his cousin, who is also known as Helly and who runs a gallery in London. The Nahmad sons spent the evening glued to their cellphones, but not bidding themselves.

For officials at Sotheby's, it was business as usual. The auction house had won the estate of Alex Lewyt, a Manhattan vacuum cleaner inventor who died in 1998, and his wife, Elisabeth, an animal-welfare advocate who died in December. They had collected some 200 works, including paintings, drawings and sculptures by Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne and Modigliani.

Some of the best of their collection started off the sale on Tuesday night, and most fared well. Top among them was "Les Pommes," a still life by Cézanne from 1889-90. Although it was expected to bring $25 million to $35 million, three bidders pushed up prices, before it sold to a telephone bidder for $37 million, or $41.6 million with fees. Another winner from the Lewyt collection was Modigliani's "Amazone," a 1909 portrait of the glamorous socialite Marguerite de Hasse de Villers. That work was estimated to bring $20 million to $30 million. It, too, went to a telephone bidder for $23 million, or $25.9 million with fees.

Because Impressionist and modern art has become increasingly difficult to find these days, collections from estates, which have generally been off the market for decades, are particularly coveted. And the Lewyts' property helped propel the evening. Of the 71 works up for sale, only 11 failed to find buyers. The evening sale totaled $230 million, just shy of its $235 million high estimate.

(Final prices include the buyer's premium: 25 percent of the first $100,000; 20 percent from $100,000 to $2 million and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

A little star power can often go a long way, but only so far. Four bidders went for a 1921 Léger that until recently had hung in Madonna's New York bedroom. The singer was selling the painting of "Trois Femmes à la Table Rouge" to raise money to benefit girls' education projects overseas. The singer bought the painting at Sotheby's in 1990 for $3.4 million. On Tuesday night, it was expected to fetch $5 million to $7 million but ended up bringing $6.2 million or $7.1 million, including Sotheby's fees.

Picasso's images of musketeers, overlooked by collectors for decades, became the rage after a show organized four years ago, by John Richardson, the artist's biographer, at one of the Gagosian Galleries in Chelsea.

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Ever since, examples of these canvases, painted late in his life, have come up for sale. On Tuesday night, "Buste d'Homme," from 1969, was expected to bring $5 million to $7 million. It soared above its high estimate, selling to a telephone bidder for $8.5 million or $9.6 million with fees.

Mr. Bryant snapped up a 1954 three-dimensional folded metal sculpture of "Sylvette," Picasso's 19-year-old neighbor in Vallauris, in the south of France, for $12 million or $13.6 million with fees, just at its low $12 million estimate. "I thought it was the best thing here," Mr. Bryant said after the sale.

Monumental sculptures have sold for strong prices in recent years, especially well-known images like one of Rodin's thinkers. One, conceived in 1880 and cast in 1906, was bought by Ben Frija, a dealer from Oslo for $15.3 million, well above its $12 million high estimate.

"Trophy-hunting season has started," said Rory Howard, a private dealer, as he was leaving the sale. "Brand names, that's what collectors want."

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