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VAN GOGH GOES FOR $10.3 MILLION

Forget the $2.6 million diamond ring, the $772,500 golf clubs and the $453,500 rocking chair that were gobbled up last week at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis extravaganza at Sotheby's.

Tuesday night at Christie's a van Gogh was happily snapped up for $10.3 million and a Degas pastel for $5.4 million.The market for Impressionist and modern art is as solid as ever, with an international crowd of collectors hungry to buy - but discerning all the same.

The biggest change as this spring's important art auctions began at Christie's Tuesday was the presence of Asian bidders, something that hasn't occurred since the market soured in 1990.

"Sixteen percent of the buyers tonight were Asian, which is up very significantly," said Michael Findlay, senior director of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's in New York.

Another change in the demographics of the buyers Tuesday night was that buyers were evenly split between the United States and Europe. (For the past several seasons, Americans have dominated the buying.)

The evening got off to a gallop as Christopher Burge, Christie's chairman in America and the evening's auctioneer, sped through the first 20 works, a majority of them selling nicely above their estimates.

Then the room suddenly went dead. One of the evening's most touted paintings, Gauguin's "Still Life with Hope," from the estate of Joanne Toor Cummings, failed to sell. Estimated to bring $7 million to $10 million, the painting had hung on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent years. Burge couldn't raise a bid and finally gave up at $5 million.

But that was one of the few big disasters Tuesday night. The sale totaled $76.1 million, just below its low $77.2 million estimate. Of the 67 works up for sale, only nine failed to find buyers among connoisseurs and collectors.

The evening's hottest attraction was van Gogh's "Interior of a Restaurant" (1887-88).

It sold to James Roundell, who headed Christie's department of Impressionist and modern art in London until he resigned two years ago to go into business for himself.

Christie's had expected the painting to fetch about $10 million, which is exactly what it did. Three bidders slugged it out until Roun-dell finally won at $10.3 million. The seller was the Danforth family of Rhode Island.

The best works up for sale were paintings and sculptures from the estate of Joanne Toor Cummings, a well-known New York philanthropist who died in September. The former wife of Nathan Cummings, founder of Consolidated Foods, Joanne Cummings collected Impressionist and modern art, as well as jewelry and furniture. Estate proceeds from the sale are to benefit about 20 institutions.

Gauguin's "Still Life With Hope," one of four works the artist executed in Tahiti in 1901, was among the stars of her collection. The painting is considered historically important because it is a homage to the artist's friend van Gogh and because in the upper left corner, Gauguin rendered his own version of "Hope," an 1872 painting by his contemporary Puvis de Chavannes.

The painting hung on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 12 years, and Joanne Cummings gave the museum a 20 percent interest in the painting before her death. Her will stipulated that the painting be sold at auction.