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'Water Lilly' Monet Painting Draws Record $80 Million at London Auction

A water lily painting by impressionist master Claude Monet sold for more than $80 million at auction Tuesday, kicking off a week of modern-art sales expected to reach records that defy the global economic downturn.

The painting "Le bassin aux nymphDeas," or "Water Lily Pond," was sold by Christie's for $80,451,178, including buyer's premium, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold by the auction house in Europe.

It was part of a four-work collection of water lily paintings that Monet put up for sale during his lifetime. He saw the oil paintings of his water garden as a cumulative work in progress, and rarely sold them.

The four large-scale paintings of Monet's water lily garden were signed and dated by the artist in 1919. One of the other paintings is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while another was sold at auction in 1992 for $12.1 million and is in a private collection. The final painting in the series was cut into two before World War II.

The 1 meter by 2 meter (3.28 feet by 6.56 feet) painting sold Tuesday was purchased in a 1971 New York auction for $320,000. It has not been publicly exhibited since.

The bold brushstrokes in the painting are characteristic of Monet's later works, especially his "Grandes dDecorations," a 22-panel work of water lily paintings that was installed in MusDee de l'Orangerie in Paris five months after Monet's death in 1926.

Monet created his water garden in Giverny, France by rerouting a river. He selected different hybrids of water lilies in an effort to get as many different colored flowers as possible, deliberately creating the garden as a motif for his paintings.

The auction also featured a rare pastel work by French impressionist Edgar Degas showing two ballet dancers that sold for nearly $26.5 million.

Tuesday's auction kicked off a week of major modern-art sales at Christie's and its rival Sotheby's, as the international market continues to set records despite global economic troubles.

On Monday, "Naked Portrait With Reflection" by British artist Lucian Freud is expected to sell for $20 million to $30 million at a Christie's sale of postwar and contemporary art.

The next day, Sotheby's offers its own contemporary sale, whose highlights include Francis Bacon's "Study For Head of George Dyer" — estimated at more than $16 million — and Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Untitled (Pecho/Oreja)," which is being sold by rock band U2 and is valued at up to $12 million.

"Le bassin aux nymphDeas," and 16 other works in the auction are from the estate of American industrialist J. Irwin Miller, who was head of the Cummin Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana. Miller and his wife, Xenia Simons Miller, were known for their love of art and architecture and are credited in transforming their hometown into a showcase for modern architecture.

The record for a Monet work was set in May at Christie's in New York. The 1873 painting "Le Pont du chemin de fer Argenteuil" sold for $41 million. It shows the scene of a bridge with two trains passing over the Seine.