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Modern Art Prices Set Record at New York Auction

The international auction house, Christie's, held the biggest auction in history in New York Wednesday evening, posting almost $500 million in sales of blockbuster Impressionist and modern art. The sale included works looted during the Nazi era.

Christie's posted a record-breaking $491 million in sales for almost 80 works of art in a 2 1/2 hour auction, exceeding the auction house's own high estimate by more than $60 million.

The staggering art sale included works by Gauguin, Klimt, Modigliani, Egon Shiele and several Picassos.

Matisse scholar Jack Flam is a professor of Art History at the City University of New York. He says a number of factors, including the economy, are propelling the soaring art market and contributed to the success of the Christie's auction. "First of all, the quality of the art. It happens to be very high end stuff. Also there was a certain amount of interest because of the association of artists like Klimt and Shiele, in particular with restitution pictures. The very high price (for the Klimt) paid by the Neue Galerie, which has been drawing crowds. These are also paintings that please people. They are beautiful. They are lyrical. They are accessible," he said.

The blockbuster auction drew special interest because it included four paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt that were recently restituted to the heirs of the original owner, who fled the Nazis in 1938. A fifth Klimt, also part of the settlement, was purchased for the Neue Galerie, a museum devoted to German and Austrian art, in June for $135 million. It was the highest recorded price for a work of art at the time.

The heirs and the Austrian government had fought over the Klimts for years. In January, an Austrian arbitration court ruled in favor of the family setting off more claims against Nazi era looting. Flam says attention focused on the Klimts also reflects a renewed interest in German and Austrian art. "I think another trend that is very much happening is a renewed interest in German art, art from German-speaking countries, Austria, Germany, in part because so much has been done already with French art and I am not only talking about collecting, but scholarship. There is movement in scholarship also to take another look at German art which has been given the attention that is due it," he said.

At the last minute, Christie's pulled one of the most valuable works to be auctioned, a Blue Period Picasso owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber art foundation. An heir to the original owner, a German Jewish banker, claimed his ancestor had been forced to sell the painting at far below its value in 1934. A federal court judge dismissed the claim. But Christies, fearing litigation, withdrew it from the sale.