NEW YORK, NOV. 7 -- Boosted by a handful of top-flight pictures, Christie's edged past disaster tonight with $36.7 million of contemporary art sold. Though outperforming archrival Sotheby's with this closely watched sale, Christie's still failed to find buyers for a large number of its offerings. Only 30 of the 58 lots sold.

While the auction total fell short of the low estimate of $47.7 million, Christie's New York CEO Christopher Burge said, "We were rather thrilled with tonight's results, especially with the best pictures. Obviously, there were more buy-ins {works that were withdrawn after they failed to meet secret minimum prices} than in the halcyon days of the inflated contemporary market," but there was "solid support for the best pictures and it came across the board."

Burge, who was the evening's chief auctioneer, did say that "the speculative steam has run out of the market" and that Christie's was able to bring down the secret reserve prices from consignors in last-minute phone calls in the gloomy wake of Sotheby's Tuesday evening sale.

In a much larger sale last November, Christie's sold 93 lots at $62.36 million with only eight buy-ins. Last May was a different story, with 26 of 51 lots failing to sell. The tepid results from that sale affected the estimates printed in the catalogue for the new crop of consignments. But more adjustment is on the horizon.

Fallout from a higher buy-in rate will affect reserve prices in a market that has been hard hit by the double whammy of economic conditions and the disruptive surges caused by speculators in contemporary art. As dealer Allan Stone said, "This is only the beginning. There'll be lots more broken bones."

Some of the most famous names in American painting and sculpture were returned to the buy-in bin tonight, including a number of works by Andy Warhol. "The speculation on Warhol was very bad in the last few seasons," commented Paris dealer Karsten Greve. "It will take a long time for that market to recover."

In tonight's auction North Americans dominated, scooping up $24.5 million in artworks, a big 67 percent. Europeans followed at $11.7 million or 32 percent. Japanese buyers accounted for a tiny $495,000, or 1 percent.

One of the biggest buyers was New York dealer Larry "Go-Go" Gagosian, who landed the star lot, Willem de Kooning's "July," a record Philip Guston and a Frank Stella, all for a shade under $10 million.

There was a great deal of nervousness in the salesroom as evidenced by the rousing round of applause following Gagosian's purchase of the Guston for $1.05 million, a relatively modest price in the top end of contemporary sales, but his "Summer" zoomed past its pre-sale estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, one of the few pictures to exceed its high estimate. Gagosian successfully bid $99,000 for Stella's burglar-alarm tape on masonite "Die Fahne Hoch."

De Kooning's "July," a powerfully gritty abstraction from 1956, was the top lot of the evening, at $8.8 million.

While bidding for the de Kooning, Gagosian held a portable phone close to his ear but later declined to disclose who bought "July." The dealer characterized the de Kooning price as "a great victory for the artist." The painting carried a pre-sale estimate of $5 million to $7 million, reflecting Christie's conservative stance in gauging the strength of his market.

A year ago at Sotheby's contemporary sale, de Kooning's "Interchange," from 1956, fetched a record-shattering $20.6 million, the highest price ever achieved by a living artist.

The ailing de Kooning, reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease, continues to work in his Easthampton studio. He is still without a dealer during his court-ordered conservancy, administered by his attorney, John L. Eastman, and daughter, Lisa de Kooning. A number of blue-chip galleries are hotly seeking to represent him, and eventually the estate.

The second highest price of the evening was achieved with Cy Twombly's untitled graffiti abstraction selling for $4.84 million to Zurich dealer Thomas Ammann. Its pre-sale estimate was $4 million to $6 million. The record for a Twombly was set in the landmark Andy Warhol Collection contemporary sale in May 1989 when an untitled work fetched $5.5 million.

Jackson Pollock's explosive abstraction, "Number 13, 1949," sold for $3.08 million. Executed in spidery webs of oil, enamel and aluminum paint, it is one of three pictures from the Yaseen Family Collection that Christie's guaranteed before the sale, assuring a minimum price for the works regardless of how they fared on the block. Christie's adopted this high-risk policy last March after losing out to Sotheby's on a number of important consignments. The other two pictures will be offered next Wednesday evening at Christie's impressionist-modern sale.

Francis Bacon's nightmarish "Portrait of George Dyer Staring Into a Mirror" sold for $3.85 million, the third-highest lot of the evening. The portrait was pegged at a pre-sale estimate of $3.5 million to $4.5 million, well below his record price of $6.2 million.

A multi-paneled "Self-Portrait" by Andy Warhol, posed with a pensive expression, was bought in at $1.6 million, about half its low estimate. A slightly different version from the same self-portrait series failed to find a buyer Tuesday evening at Sotheby's, a further indication of the late art star's deflating market.

A later self-portrait by Warhol from 1980, featuring the artist's famed platinum blond wig, also flopped at $320,000.

Another of the highly touted multimillion-dollar lots was Franz Kline's brawny-stroked composition from 1957 (untitled). It sold for $2.64 million and carried a pre-sale estimate of $2.5 to $4.5 million.

Mark Rothko's moody "Tan and Black on Red" realized $3.19 million, selling to Gallery Urban, with locations in New York, Paris and Tokyo.

Jasper Johns's "Water Freezes," with a tall thermometer splitting the canvas-collage, was bought in at $1.4 million, far from the $2.4 million low estimate, making him 0 for 3 at the evening sessions at Sotheby's and Christie's.

Joan Mitchell's lush abstraction "Vera Cruz" went for $374,000. A chilling late work by Philip Guston, "Downtown," brought $418,000.

Christie's has a second contemporary art sale on Thursday, but the major action switches at both houses next week to the more pricey impressionist and modern field. On Monday, artworks from the estate of Henry Ford II will be auctioned at Sotheby's.