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Renoir Work Sells for $78.1 Million : Auction: The painting ‘Au Moulin de la Galette’ is highlight of Sotheby’s offering of Impressionist and modern art. The price is the second highest ever.

TIMES ART WRITER

“Au Moulin de la Galette,” an Impressionist dance hall scene by Pierre Auguste Renoir, was purchased at auction Thursday night for $78.1 million by an anonymous telephone bidder.

The sale of the Renoir painting at Sotheby’s occurred 49 hours too late to establish a world auction record. It was upstaged by Tuesday night’s $82.5-million sale at Christie’s of Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” to the Kobayashi Gallery of Tokyo.

Each of the paintings had been valued at $40 million to $50 million, leading to speculation about whether either would top the $53.9-million auction record set in 1987 for Van Gogh’s “Irises.” But Van Gogh’s “Dr. Gachet” is now the world’s most expensive artwork on public record, the Renoir is second and “Irises,” now owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, is third.

“Obviously, we’d like the price of the Renoir to be a few million dollars more but $78.1 million is a wonderful price,” auctioneer John L. Marion said after the sale.

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Bidding began at $25 million and rose in increments of $1 million, with most of the competition--including the final bid--taking place by telephone. Sotheby’s declined to disclose any information about the buyer’s identity.

The mystery buyer purchased a painting of a happy crowd enjoying a summer day at an outdoor dance hall in the Montmartre section of Paris. Renoir painted the convivial scene in 1876 at Moulin de la Galette, a gathering place for working class families. His models were milliners, dressmakers and floral shop attendants who frequented the dance hall.

The Impressionist painting was sold by Betsey Cushing Whitney, a New York philanthropist who has donated much of her collection to museums. Her late husband, John Hay Whitney, a financier and former publisher of the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, bought the painting for $165,000 in 1929.

The Renoir sale, which easily broke the artist’s record of $17.7 million, was the highlight of the auction that totaled $286 million in sales, a record for an Impressionist and modern art auction.

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Sotheby’s had estimated that the sale of 70 works would total between $216 million and $289 million. Although 12 relatively low-priced lots failed to sell, a dozen pricier works exceeded their high estimates.

Along with Sotheby’s sale Wednesday night of the Lydia Winston Malbin collection of modern art, which totaled $75 million and lived up to the auction house’s most optimistic predictions, Thursday night’s sale seemed to allay fears that the Impressionist and modern art market was headed for as strong a correction as contemporary art experienced in last week’s auctions.

Three works put on the block by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York brought considerably higher prices than predicted. Ernst Beyeler, a dealer from Basel, Switzerland, bought Wassily Kandinsky’s “Fugue” for $20.9 million, well above its estimate of $10 million to $15 million. An unidentified Japanese dealer paid $14.85 million for Marc Chagall’s fanciful painting, “Anniversary,” which had been valued at $6 million to $8 million.

The third Guggenheim sale, “Boy in a Blue Vest” by Amedeo Modigliani, also valued at $6 million to $8 million, was purchased for $11.55 million by New York dealer Klaus Perls. In a move that has been criticized by art critics, the Guggenheim decided to sell these three prime works to buy a collection of Minimalist sculpture.

Remarking on the high prices of the Guggenheim consignments, Marion said: “When you have things of unusual quality on the market, they bring unusual prices.”

The Kandinsky and Chagall works set records for the artists, as did a group of six bronze models for Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” ($4.3 million), Ernst Kirchner’s Expressionist painting, “Drahtseiltanz” ($1.65 million) and Liubov Popova’s “Cubist Cityscape” ($1.76 million).

A Renoir still life and a landscape failed to attract buyers but the artist’s painting, “Young Girl With Cat,” was purchased anonymously for $18.5 million.

This week’s series of Impressionist and modern art auctions ends today with Sotheby’s sale of less expensive paintings, sculpture, drawings and watercolors.

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