NEW YORK (Reuters) - Impressionist and modern art achieved some respectable results at Sotheby's on Tuesday, but the sale was marked by the 11th-hour withdrawal of its much-hyped star offering, an early masterpiece by Egon Schiele.
A night earlier, rival Christie's kicked off New York's spring sales with a solid $289 million Impressionist and modern total, helping reassure an uncertain art market in the wake of recent seasons when owners were reluctant to put their art works up for auction.
Sotheby's managed to move $173.8 million in fine art, including commission of just over 12 percent, against pre-sale expectations of $147 million to $210 million.
Nearly three-quarters of the 50 works on offer found buyers, with heavy participation by Asian, Russian and European bidders, Sotheby's said.
Sotheby's announced the Schiele's withdrawal moments before the sale. Later it gave no explanation, apart from the owner having decided against selling "Danaë," painted when the Austrian artist was just 19, at this time.
The auction house had promoted the painting as the most important early work ever to come to auction and predicted it would fetch up to $40 million, which would have set a new Schiele record.
With the Schiele out of contention, the top lot ended up being Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection," an abstract oil painting which soared to $21.2 million, handily beating its $12 million to $18 million estimate.
Other highlights included Max Ernst's "Le Roi jouant avec la reine," a bronze work which drew more than 10 bidders and fetched just under $16 million, four times the low estimate. It set a record for an Ernst sculpture.
Monet's "Le Bassin aux nympheas" sold for the same price, but had been estimated to sell for $14 million to $18 million.
Sculpture sold well overall, including Diego Giacommetti's "Bibliotheque," which set an artist's record with a $6.3 million price tag.
On Monday Christie's sale was led by Brancusi's bronze sculpture "La muse endormie," which smashed the artist's record when it soared to $57.4 million, doubling the pre-sale estimate.
"It's a very discerning, very savvy marketplace that is successful in separating out the wheat from the chaff," said Simon Shaw, co-head of Impressionist and modern art.
"People are looking for the best," he added, citing such considerations as provenance, rarity and whether or not a work was fresh to the market.
The auctions continue on Wednesday with Christie's sale of contemporary art, a category that almost single handedly drove the market's most recent boom.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Eric Meijer