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LONDON (Reuters) - Works by Picasso and Van Gogh helped the London arm of Sotheby's hit its highest-ever sales figure for a single auction, coming close to the overall London record set by rival Christie's a day earlier, as art sales boomed in the British capital.
The Sotheby's sale late on Wednesday totalled 163 million pounds ($266 million), and the auctioneer said on Thursday demand had come from both emerging markets such as Russia and longer-established markets in Europe and America.
"Our auctioneer, Henry Wyndham, was fielding bids from as many as five determined bidders on nearly every lot, coming from Russia, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America as well as the U.S. and Europe," said Helena Newman, the co-head of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art department worldwide.
"It certainly feels like a great stride into the first of the 2014 sale seasons."
The previous day, a Christie's sale had fetched 177 million pounds, a record for any sale held in London by an auction house, even though the auctioneer had to withdraw a batch of works by Joan Miro at the last minute.
Highlights of the Sotheby's sale included "Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinee de printemps", a Parisian street scene by impressionist Camille Pissarro, that went for 20 million pounds to an anonymous buyer, and "L'Homme est en mer", by Vincent Van Gogh, which fetched almost 17 million pounds.
The sale also included part of the private collection of Holocaust survivor and four-time concentration camp escapee Jan Krugier. The 37 items, including works by Pablo Picasso and Pierre Bonnard, fetched a total of 53 million pounds.
The auction drew bidders from 44 countries, more than Sotheby's, founded in 1744, had ever seen for a sale in London in the same category.
"We have seen an explosion in the globalisation of our buyers," Newman told Reuters by telephone, adding that new buyers from Russia were successful in bagging some of the top lots.
Prices for the most-sought-after art works have soared in recent years, driven by an swiftly expanding class of super-rich collectors in emerging markets and financiers flush with cash from the extra liquidity pumped into markets by central banks.
Christie's shocked collectors in November last year when it sold Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" for $142.4 million, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Investors say emerging-market billionaires have poured money into the top end of the art market because they see it as a safer investment than their volatile currencies and unstable economies.
The recent rout in emerging markets may be heightening those fears. Emerging markets now account for almost 30 percent of worldwide buying, Sotheby's said in January, compared with only 5 to 10 percent 20 years ago.
Sotheby's held its first sale in mainland China in December, seeking to tap into what it called "the fastest-growing art market in the world".
Both Asian and Russian buyers were showing an increasing interest in the big-name categories such as impressionist and contemporary art, moving away from local artists, it said.
Sales at Sotheby's grew by almost 20 percent last year, making it the fastest-growing art auctioneer in 2013. Full-year results will be released at the end of February.
($1=0.6137 British pounds)
Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Estelle Shirbon and Larry King