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"Pierrette's Wedding," a poignant group portrait from Picasso's famed blue period, fetched $48.9 million at auction Thursday, the most ever paid for a work by the Spanish master.

The Japanese firm Nippon Autopolis Co. bought the work and will make it the centerpiece of a museum in an auto racing theme resort in the mountains of southern Japan."We felt we absolutely must have the real thing, a real masterpiece like this for our museum," said Takeshi Inaba, senior managing director of Nippon Autopolis.

Officials said the musuem is to open next fall as part of a resort on the island of Kyushu that also will include an F-1 auto racing circuit.

Nippon Autopolis bid on the painting from the Bunkamura Shibuya auction house in Toyko in a televised satellite hookup with the Drouot-Montaigne auction house in Paris.

The previous Picasso record was held by "Yo Picasso," which sold for $47.85 million at Sotheby's in May.

The record for any work of art - $53.9 million - was set in 1987 for Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises."

As in the case of "Pierrette's Wedding," record prices generally do not include the auction house fee because the fees vary from country to country. However, an average fee is 5 percent.

Thursday's sale also included a series of 26 paintings by American pop artist Andy Warhol titled "Ladies and Gentlemen." They were sold in Tokyo for prices ranging from $55,000 to $1.5 million - between one-half and two-thirds their pre-sale estimates.

"It was a big mistake to auction the Warhols in Tokyo and Paris," said French collector Alain Lesieutre. "They would have brought top dollar in the United States.

Lesieutre called the price paid for "Pierrette's Wedding" ridiculously low: "It's a gift, a give-away. It's a masterpiece and should have brought much more, but the French are afraid of big money."

Executed in 1905, the painting titled "Les Noces de Pierrette" in French, is considered one of Picasso's most important paintings because of its unusually large size, hauntingly beautiful blues and pinks and harlequin theme.

The painting shows six figures - probably circus performers - sitting around a table celebrating with an unsmiling newlywed couple. The bride, her head draped with a Spanish-style mantilla - has eyes only for her lover, whom she has abandonned to marry an older, richer man, pictured in a top hat.

"It's a transitional painting that announces all the colors and forms that will dominate Picasso's works for years to come," said Isabelle de Wavrin, art critic for Beaux Arts Magazine.