Art Wednesday: Trophy Art by Monet and Kandinsky Now Getting Top Prices

Mondrian's 'Composition with Red, Blue and Grey,' left, sold for $25.9 million, and Monet's 'Water Lilies' fetched $54 million at Sotheby's

Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Red, Blue and Grey,’ left, sold for $25.9 million, and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ fetched $54 million at Sotheby’s.

What a difference four years makes in the art world.

In 2010, Christie’s offered up Claude Monet’s 1906 “Water Lilies” for at least £30 million ($51 million at current exchange rates) and no one nibbled. On Monday, Sotheby’s brought the same painting up for sale and at least three bidders dueled for it. An American telephone bidder ultimately won it for £31.7 million, or $54 million.

That price amounts to the second-highest ever paid at auction for a Monet, whose purple-blue pond scene ranks among his later works set at his French garden in Giverny. The highest-price ever paid for a Monet was $80.4 million at Christie’s six years ago for a 1919 pond scene from the same series, “Pool of Water Lilies.” Sotheby’s had expected the 1906 work to sell for up to $51 million.

A spare block grid by Piet Mondrian titled “Composition with Red, Blue and Grey” also sold to an American telephone bidder for $25.9 million, within its $22.2 million to $30.7 million pre-auction estimate.

All season, collectors from around the world—and particularly China—have thronged after Impressionist and modern art trophies yet bypassed more mediocre material. Sotheby’s sale was designed to suit their tastes for name-brand artists and works containing a colorful, cheery palette.

Chinese bidders chased after examples by Monet, Max Beckmann and Tamara De Lempicka, but they were largely outbid by American and Russian bidders. David Norman, a Sotheby’s expert who typically represents American collectors, took home the Monet and the Mondrian as well as Beckmann’s $8.1 million “Still-Life with Gramophone and Irises.” The 1924 rosy table scene hailed from the artist’s rare early period in Frankfurt and also came on the market from the estate of Pablo Picasso’s longtime dealer, Jan Krugier.

In all, Mr. Krugier’s estate sold 17 works largely within or above their estimates for a combined $46 million, well over their $31.8 million high estimate. Among the highlights of Mr. Krugier’s group was Wassily Kandinsky’s $9.5 million “Autumn Landscape,” which had previously come to market at Christie’s last fall but had failed to sell. Bidders at Sotheby’s on Monday decided that the work merited a second look. It may also have helped that the painting once belonged to German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mr. Krugier won it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1989 for $3.96 million.

Throughout the sale, collectors appeared willing to splurge on just about everything, from Picasso etchings to Balthus works on paper. That shopping-spree attitude lifted Sotheby’s sale to $207.9 million, toward the high end of its presale estimate of $146.9 million to $211.1 million. Only four works failed to find buyers, helping the auction house achieve a rare 91.3% of its total potential value.

Elsewhere in the sale, a group of four works from the estate of Ralph Wilson, founder of the Buffalo Bills football team, sold for a combined $35.6 million—led by a pair of Monet landscapes. “Antibes, View of Notre Dame Plateau,” sold for $13.5 million, and the artist’s “River at Argenteuil” sold for $14.5 million, within their estimates.

In a sign of the current market’s exuberance, Picasso’s 2-foot-long varnished wood and plaster sculpture of a “Bull” also attracted several bidders at Sotheby’s sale. The piece wound up selling for $3 million. It was only expected to sell for up to $597,000.

Christie’s in London countered with its own evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Tuesday.