By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - Christie's on Tuesday kicked off a fortnight of major London art sales with a bang, hitting or exceeding the most optimistic pre-sale expectations and extending 2011's record-breaking run into the new year.
At its impressionist and modern evening sale, the world's largest auctioneer sold works worth 97.8 million pounds ($155 million), which was toward the top end of estimates.
The Art of the Surreal auction raised an additional 37.2 million pounds ($59 million), well above the valuation range of 19.6-29.1 million pounds, although the total included buyers' premiums whereas pre-sale estimates did not.
According to preliminary figures, Christie's overall sold art worth 135.0 million pounds (slightly under $214 million), topping the high estimate of 127.1 million pounds as the London art world enters a two-week period of auctions that are off to a strong start.
British sculptor Henry Moore was the night's top lot. His "Reclining Figure: Festival" soared to 19.1 million pounds ($30.3 million) compared with pre-sale estimates of 3.5-5.5 million. Christie's said it was an auction record for the artist.
In the surreal section, Christie's also smashed the auction record for Spanish painter Joan Miro when "Painting-Poem" went for 16.8 million pounds ($26.6 million), double its estimate.
Vincent Van Gogh's "Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy", from the collection of the late Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor, raised 10.1 million pounds ($16 million) versus expectations of 5.0-7.0 million.
"As the crown jewel of her art collection, we are delighted with the price achieved for Van Gogh's 'Vue de l'asile', a profoundly beautiful work from one of creative high points of the artist's career," Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie's Americas, said in a statement.
Juan Gris' "Le livre" went under the hammer for 10.3 million pounds, just short of the low estimate of 12 million.
The strong night launches Christie's into the new year on a positive note after it posted record revenues of 3.6 billion pounds in 2011, an increase of nine percent from 2010. Those figures underlined the ongoing strength of the "blue chip" art market that concentrates on top artists and rare works.
Emerging collectors from mainland China have been a driving force, and experts also believe investors are considering art as an alternative to stocks, bonds and currencies given the strength of the market in the last two years.
Rival Sotheby's holds its equivalent auction on Wednesday evening, and the two companies stage a second series of post-war and contemporary sales the following week.
Combined, the auctioneers are offering art worth in excess of 500 million pounds (roughly $800 million).
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)