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It was the most valuable single sale in art market history. On the evening of November 8 Christie's set a new benchmark for fine art auctioneering when their ticket-only sale of Impressionist and Modern art realised a premium-inclusive total of $491.5m (£271m). And this from a catalogue of just 84 lots lacking one of its potential stars.

Masterpieces restituted from European museums lay at the heart of a mind-boggling total that bettered the previous single-sale record (the $286m posted by Sotheby's in May 1990) by over $200m.

The core of the sale was a group of four major oils by Gustav Klimt that, confiscated 1938 by the Nazis, had spent many years in Vienna's Gallery Belvedere. In January this year an Austrian arbitration panel ruled that the paintings - and Adele Bloch-Bauer I, bought privately by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for a landmark $135m in June - should be restored to the Bloch-Bauer heirs.

The four works collectively totaled a premium-inclusive $192.7m with Adele Bloch-Bauer II sold at $78.5m/£43.4m (plus premium) to become the third highest selling picture at auction.

Ronald S. Lauder's Neue Galerie, whose landmark purchase was one of a handful of recent private deals that helped build the momentum for this sale, was both buyer and seller at the sale. Represented in the room by private dealer Daniella Luxembourg, he was the buyer of another major restituted picture - a street scene of decadent Berlin before the First World War painted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at $34m (£18.8m). Just months ago it was taken from the walls of the Brücke Museum in Berlin and returned to the heirs of Alfred and Thekla Hess who were Jewish collectors in Erfurt.

The Neue Galerie turned vendor, selling three works by Egon Schiele, including the much-exhibited 1917 watercolour Kniender Halbakt nach links gebeugt, which smashed the previous record for a work on paper by the artist at $10m (£5.5m), and during the two-and-a-half hour sale there were records too for Gauguin (whose early Tahitian scene L'homme à la hâche, 1891, sold at $36m/£19.9m) and Pierre Bonnard (Deux corbeilles de fruits c.1935 at $7.6m/£4.2m).

Never has so much money changed hands at a single sale, but it could have been better. The $491.5m came despite the much-publicised eleventh-hour withdrawal of the 1903 Blue Period Picasso Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, known as The Absinthe Drinker, estimated at $40m-60m.

The decision, taken by Christie's and their vendor The Andrew Lord Lloyd Webber Art Foundation (who had bought it at Sotheby's New York in 1995 for $26.5m), followed a claim filed by Julius H. Schoeps, who said the painting was sold under duress by his great-uncle, a Jewish banker in Nazi Germany.

A federal judge had dismissed the claim on the grounds that his court had no jurisdiction in the matter, but another suit was pending in a state court.

Issues of restitution can, it seems, be a double-edged sword.

By Roland Arkell