By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Impressionist and modern art achieved strong prices on Wednesday as Sotheby's held one of its biggest auctions ever, in a dramatic turnaround from two nights of disappointing sales at Christie's earlier this week.
Led by Giacometti's sculpture "Grande tete de Diego" and Picasso's oil "Tete de femme," which fetched $50 million and $39.9 million respectively, the sale totaled more than $290 million, with 81 percent of 64 lots finding buyers.
It was Sotheby's best Impressionist and modern art result apart from its May 2012 sale at which one of the versions of Munch's "The Scream" sold for a record $120 million. The strong sales were likely to calm market jitters that followed Christie's results, which fell far short of expectations.
As the hammer came down on the final lot, applause and whoops broke out in the salesroom. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer responded to the reaction, saying, "So the market is alive, huh?"
David Norman, Sotheby's co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, admitted to concerns before the sale, given Christie's' sales at which most of the top lots went unsold and totals fell far below even the low pre-sale estimates.
"I was concerned that the market was feeling nervous and cautious," he told Reuters after the blockbuster sale.
Norman said pre-sale interest indicated a good showing, "but I wasn't anticipating how many bidders would be chasing the top lots."
Indeed, collectors' deep pockets were well in evidence as more than half a dozen bidders went after Picasso's "Mousquetaire a la pipe," a vibrant 1969 work that sold for $30,965,000, about 50 percent more than its estimate.
Monet's "Glacons, Effet blanc" attracted at least five bidders before selling for $16.1 million, including commission, and beating the high estimate.
Simon Shaw, Sotheby's New York head of Impressionist and modern art, said the results spoke for themselves, adding that when top-quality works new to the market come up and are "estimated in a responsible way, there is tremendous global demand."
The Giacometti sculpture had never been auctioned.
Shaw said the sale saw greater participation by Asian collectors than any previous Sotheby's Impressionist and modern sale.
Norman added, "This is a more global market than ever before."
Christie's officials made the same observation this week after its top lot, a Picasso portrait of his children "Claude and Paloma" which fetched $28.2 million, was bought by Chinese mogul Wang Jianlin on behalf of the Dalian Wanda Group conglomerate.
On Tuesday, Giacometti's "Diego en chemise ecossaise" sold for $32.6 million, a record for a painting by the artist, and several of the top lots went to Asian clients.
Andreas Rumbler, acting head of Impressionist and modern art who was also Christie's auctioneer, said, "I witnessed significant international participation, with particularly fervent bidding from our Asian colleagues working with clients from several different countries in the region."
For its part, Sotheby's said its sale on Wednesday was marked by "record levels of participation from both Asia and Latin America."
The auctions continue next week when Christie's and Sotheby's hold their sales of postwar and contemporary art.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)