On Nov. 1, 1888, Vincent van Gogh set up his easel in an ancient Roman necropolis in Arles, France, and painted an avenue of stone sarcophagi lined by towering poplars aflame with the colors of autumn.
Known as “L’allée Des Alyscamps,” it was the big seller at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Tuesday, bringing $66.3 million — when it had been expected to fetch $40 million—as five bidders competed for a prize that ultimately went to an Asian private collector.
The sale, the first major auction of the spring season and the only large evening sale this week, brought in a total of $368 million for Sotheby’s, making it the second-highest sale of Impressionist and modern art in the auction house’s history.
Last November, Sotheby’s took in $422 million from such a sale.
Bidders walked off with 50 of the 64 lots offered. The rest were left unsold but Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, said the results showed that Sotheby’s had not suffered from staging the only major auction at a time when some art collectors were clearly at the Venice Biennale.
“It’s wonderful to be selling in a week when we’re the only game in town,” he said. “It really focused people’s attention.”
(Final prices reported by the auction house for each lot include the buyer’s premium: 25 percent of the first $100,000; 20 percent from $100,000 to $2 million; and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
For the van Gogh, the work had last sold for $12 million in 2003.
The highest price paid for a van Gogh at auction was the $82.5 million paid in 1990 for his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet.”
“There are very few price points that tell us what this is worth,” Mr. Shaw said in an interview before the sale. “These are so rare.”
Since the start of 2005, only nine paintings from van Gogh’s mature period (1888-1890) have sold at auction. Last fall at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern sale, his “Still Life, Vase With Daisies and Poppies” from 1890 brought $61.7 million, having been expected to sell for $30 million to $50 million.
Following close behind on Tuesday night was one of Claude Monet’s water lilies—”Nymphéas”—which went for $54 million, well above its high estimate of $45 million. The 1905 oil on canvas was unusual for its uncracked condition and because many Monets have been in private collections—and not made public—for decades.
Monet’s 1913 “Bassin Aux Nymphéas, Les Rosiers” was also one of the evening’s big draws, though the $20.4 million it fetched was toward the lower end of the pre-sale estimate range of $18 million to $25 million.
The artist’s “Le Palais Ducal” did better. Painted in 1908 from a floating pontoon, it sold for $23 million, at the high end of the presale estimate of $15 million to $20 million. The artwork was part of the collection of Jakob Goldschmidt, which was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 and reclaimed in 1960.
Auction houses typically do not disclose the owners of works up for sale. But in the case of the evening’s highest-selling Picasso, Sotheby’s proudly trumpeted the provenance: the Goldwyn family, Hollywood royalty.
To add excitement, even two of the Goldwyn’s Academy Award statues were on display at the auction preview—”The Oscars are not for sale,” joked Jeremiah Evarts Jr., Sotheby’s senior vice president head of evening sales Impressionist and modern art.
Samuel Goldwyn, the producer, and his son, Samuel Jr., collected art ranging from Matisse to David Hockney. Several of their works were on sale Tuesday, including Picasso’s 1948 portrait of Françoise Gilot, “Femme Au Chignon Dans Un Fauteuil,” which sold for $29.9 million, well above the $18 million estimate.
“You’re not just buying a Picasso,” Mr. Shaw said. “You’re buying a collecting vision of someone’s personal taste.”
In the painting, Gilot is wearing the Polish jacket Picasso brought her as a peace offering after a trip to Warsaw, having angered her by leaving her pregnant.
Items put up for sale from the collection of Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago businessman and philanthropist who died in January, included Alberto Giacometti’s “Buste De Diego (Aménophis),” which the dealer Pierre Matisse acquired from the artist. Estimated to sell for $6 million to $8 million, it went for $12.8 million.
Other big sellers on Tuesday included Fernand Léger’s “La Roue Bleue, État Définitif,” painted in 1920, which went for $10.5 million (the estimate was $8 million to $12 million).
Next week will see a crush of auctions with five evening sales, starting Monday. On May 14, in particular, two auctions will keep collectors on the run if they want to make it to both: Christie’s Impressionism and Modern Art sale at 5:30 p.m. and Phillips sale of contemporary art at 7 p.m.