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The threat of war in the Gulf and the continuing climate of economic uncertainty cast a gloomy pall over international bidding at Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening auctions of Impressionist and Modern art on February 3 and 4. Both houses failed to sell around half their entries and Christie’s premium-inclusive total of £18.4m from 37 lots and Sotheby’s £16.35m from 55 were respectively £11m and £7m short of their pre-sale estimates.

Subdued bidding from the US was widely blamed for these poor performances, though the New York dealer Nick Acquavella was in the room at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night to pay a record £3.8m for Pierre Bonnard’s superb 1932 canvas La Porte Fenêtre or Matinée au Cannet. The previous evening Christie’s also offered stand-alone sales of German and Austrian art and Surrealism.

This battle of the theme sales saw the younger field of Surrealism emerge as the stronger market, with a total of £8m (estimate £8-11m) from 41 lots at a volume selling rate of 78 per cent, while the German and Austrian auction, hampered by limited bidding from recession-hit Germany itself, took £5.6m (estimate £9-12m) from 37 lots, with 47 per cent material unsold.

Top performing Surrealist lot was René Magritte’s 1961 oil, Les barricades mysterieuses, which fell to a private bidder at a mid-estimate £1.9m.

Contemporary art brought even better news for the market. The buyer base was palpably thicker, if still somewhat cautious, at Christie’s February 5 evening sale of Post-War Contemporary art which found buyers for 81 per cent of its 32 lots, generating a total of £6.1m (estimate £8-12m). The mood was even more positive at Sotheby’s the following evening where 44 (88 per cent) of the 50 lots found buyers and the final total of £11m was at the upper end of the £9-12m estimate.

Almost every lot from virtually every movement of post-war art attracted interest from at least two or three bidders. Mark Rothko’s classic 1969 abstract, Untitled, set a new record for a work by the artist on paper at £950,000, but younger artists were also in demand. The 1999 rubbish and light projector piece, One of Us, by artists-of-the-moment Tim Noble and Sue Webster, climbed to a double-estimate £65,000, thanks to underbidding by a private client who had only heard of the artists when he saw the catalogue.

“There’s a whole new group of rich collectors in their 40s out there,” beamed auctioneer Tobias Meyer after the sale, “and they’re mainly buying Contemporary art.”