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By Christopher Michaud

Written by: Staff

NEW YORK, May 4 (Reuters) Picasso's 1941 portrait of his mistress, ''Dora Maar with cat,'' sold for an astounding 95 million dollars at Sotheby's becoming the second most expensive painting in auction history.

The vibrant, large-scale work depicts Maar, the surrealist photographer Picasso was romantically involved with for a decade, seated in a chair with a small cat perched on the back.

It had been expected to sell for upwards of 40 million dollars, but the winning bid of 95,216,000 dollars, including commission, caught even Sotheby's officials by surprise yesterday.

''I was hoping for 70-plus,'' said David Norman, Sotheby's co-chair of Impressionist and modern art, after the sale. ''We thought it was worth more, and we were right.'' Even Tobias Meyer, the usually unflappable auctioneer, admitted he was surprised when the bidding passed 65 million dollars.

''The energy in the room was incredible,'' he said. ''There's just a very clear, strong demand for the kind of intense painting with an emotional pull that the Picasso represents; things that are made for our times,'' Given a less-than robust economy, Norman said he was ''surprised, thrilled and grateful,'' at the sale's result ''but I wasn't expecting a poor sale. We knew there's a tremendous pool of money out there,'' he said.

The auction of Impressionist and modern art brought in a total of 207,564,800 dollars, it's third highest sales figure ever, Sotheby's said.

''I didn't dare hope we'd do this well,'' said Norman.

Two works owned by disgraced Tyco head Dennis Kozlowski and being sold by court order to offset fines and restitution also achieved solid prices. Monet's ''Near Monte-Carlo (Cape Martin: The point)'' sold for just over million, while Renoir's ''Flowers and fruit'' went for just over 2.8 million dollars.

The sale's other high points included a new record for a Matisse which sold for 18,496,000 dollars and several other Picassos.

They included ''Harlequin with baton'' which sold for 10,096,000 dollars and ''Woman seated in an armchair,'' which fetched 6,736,000 dollars.

The world record for any art sold at auction is held by another Picasso, ''Boy with a pipe,'' which Sotheby's sold two years ago for 104 million. The second-highest price before Wednesday was van Gogh's ''Portrait of Dr Gachet'' at 82.5 million dollars, which sold in 1990.


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