At the showrooms of Christie's and Sotheby's last week, as white-gloved staff carefully hung dozens of museum-quality paintings, there was definitely a sense that Christmas would arrive in June.
This week's sales of Impressionist and modern art at the two houses, including blockbuster canvases by Monet, Manet, Picasso, Derain and Matisse, are expected to be the largest-grossing art auctions ever held in London, and together could exceed the high estimate of ₤380-million ($575-million).
"London has never seen anything like this before," said Patrick Legant of Sotheby's as he watched Manet's 1878 Self-Portrait with a Palette lifted by two auction-house staff in blue aprons. "That painting, for example, is the kind of thing you offer once in a lifetime."
The Manet is one of only two self-portraits the artist painted; the other hangs in a gallery in Tokyo. The last time it was sold at auction, in 1997, it fetched $18.7-million. At Sotheby's on Tuesday, it will carry a high estimate of ₤30-million ($45.5-million).
The self-portrait is one of a series of big-ticket works that will draw collectors and dealers from all over the world to the immaculate auction houses in central London; those who can't make it will relay their bids to staff manning a bank of telephones.
Christie's is holding the larger of the sales, beginning on Wednesday with 63 lots estimated to bring in as much as ₤230-million ($348-million). The highlight of Christie's sales is one of Monet's celebrated Nymphéas water-lily canvases, painted at Giverny in 1906. It was part of the exhibition of Monet's water-lily paintings held in Paris in 1909, and is expected to fetch upwards of ₤40-million ($60-million).
The quality of the art on offer this week prompted Christie's to take the rare step of opening its doors to the public for four days, so that even those who have no chance of buying a painting can see these before they're snapped up by private collections.
Dealers at both houses said the unusual number of noteworthy works on sale was due to sellers sensing a confident market. "The market is really strong," said Sotheby's Legant. "People have seen that the top end of the market can achieve extraordinary prices, when rarity and quality are combined." Christie's Giovanna Bertazzoni has noted "a fierce international demand in the art market, particularly for the rarest and the best."
If the trend continues from recent auctions, the London sales may achieve new standards. Only last month, an auction record was set when Christie's in New York sold Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for $106.4-million (U.S.) to a telephone bidder whose identity has not been revealed. That was $2-million more than another anonymous buyer paid at Sotheby's in February to set the previous auction record, for a Giacometti bronze sculpture, Walking Man I.
The other hot ticket at Christie's sale is Picasso's Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto, otherwise known as The Absinthe Drinker. It's being sold by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to benefit his charitable foundation, and like many of the works on sale, has dramatic ties to the history of European art during the Second World War.
The 1903 painting, which may well exceed its estimate of ₤40-million, was supposed to be auctioned in 2006, but the sale was delayed after a German litigant claimed the painting had been illegally acquired by the Nazis. The dispute was resolved out of court.
There's a similar story behind a group of paintings at Sotheby's, which have been shut away in a Paris bank vault since 1939 and now bear the grand name Trésors du Coffre Vollard after the famous art dealer who owned them - Ambroise Vollard, a champion of Impressionist and modern art.
In 1939, just after Vollard died, the 140 works, including pieces by Cézanne and Degas, were left in the bank by a friend of Vollard's, who died in a concentration camp three years later. The vault was opened in 1979, but the sale of the works was held up by legal wrangling until now.
The highlight of Vollard's collection is a bright canvas by the Fauvist painter André Derain, Arbres à Collioure, which is expected to fetch as much as ₤14-million ($21-million). Depending on how heated things get when the paddles start flying, it could sell for quite a bit more.