NEW YORK, NOV. 12 -- The art market took another jolt tonight when a trove of French impressionist and modern paintings and sculptures from the estate of Henry Ford II snared a lackluster $48.58 million at Sotheby's, in the first major test of the season for this category. The reappearance of strong bidding by the Japanese, who were mostly absent from last week's round of contemporary sales, saved the auction from disaster.

Thirteen out of 36 artworks failed to sell, and the majority of the 23 that did find buyers went for prices considerably below their lowest pre-sale estimates.

A notable exception was the evening's top lot, Renoir's "Cup of Chocolate," which fetched $18.15 million. It was sold to an unidentified Japanese buyer. But other lots that also were fresh to the market failed miserably, such as Modigliani's "Portrait of Morgan Russell," which was bought in at $6.25 million.

"It was not what we anticipated," John L. Marion, chief auctioneer and CEO of Sotheby's North America, said of the evening. "The market is assessing itself, to see where we go from here. ... It's quite a confusing picture."

Asked at a post-sale news conference if Sotheby's now owned any of the 13 bought-in paintings, Marion said, "That will be between the estate and ourselves. If we wind up owning any paintings, that's a fact of life."

Since Sotheby's guaranteed almost all of the works offered tonight, it would presumably assume ownership of those that failed to find buyers. The sale appeared to be going smoothly until after the impressive price realized for the Renoir. Then, as if the effort had been too much, the next six lots failed to find buyers.

At the last minute, the first lot of the evening, a pencil drawing by Renoir, was withdrawn. Asked afterward why the work was taken out of the sale, Sotheby's Director of Fine Arts David J. Nash said that when the drawing was removed from the frame for examination, it was found to be a reproduction.

The record for a Renoir, $78.1 million, was set at Sotheby's last May when "Le Moulin de La Galette," painted in 1876, sold to Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito. The second-highest price for the artist was also set that evening when "Young Girl With a Cat" sold for $18.15 million.

Margot, who was portrayed in the famous "Moulin" picture, is the dark-haired model in the Ford Renoir (circa 1878), proving she was one of the artist's favorite models. She is formally seated in the artist's opulent and flower-bedecked studio, absently stirring her cup of chocolate.

According to Nash, Renoir was intent on drumming up portrait business when he submitted this work to the Paris Salon of 1878. The gambit was a great success and Renoir kept the portrait for another 20 years before selling it to Durand-Ruel, his dealer in Paris, for a then-substantial 2,500 francs. Durand-Ruel subsequently sold the painting to auto magnate and heir Edsel Ford in 1937. His wife inherited the painting and at her death bequeathed it to their only son, Henry Ford II. For tax reasons, the picture was turned over to the Henry Ford II Family Collection.

The Renoir was the only artwork in the sale not covered by Sotheby's guarantee, a minimum and confidential price for the 35 other Fords. Sotheby's does not give out any information on the size of guarantees but art market sources say it is usually pegged close to the low estimate, in this case a total of around $51 million once you subtract the Renoir's pre-sale estimate from the overall low estimate of $66 million. Though Sotheby's wouldn't comment on its "private contracts," it would appear the auction house lost money with its guarantee.

Paul Cezanne's riveting landscape of his father's country estate in Aix, "Le Jas de Bouffan," a sharp contrast to the rather old-fashioned look of the Renoir interior, sold for $7.15 million, making it the night's second highest lot. The pre-sale estimate was $7 million to $9 million. The circa 1885 painting, with its shimmering colors and pre-cubist sense of fractured space, appreciated greatly since Henry Ford II purchased it at Parke-Bernet Galleries (the forerunner of Sotheby's New York operation) in 1966 for $360,000.

Another Renoir, "Reclining Female Nude" (circa 1888), this one under the influence of Rubens, sold for $2.75 million, well below its $3.5 million to $4.5 million pre-sale estimate.

Henri Matisse's tabletop still life from 1939, "Pewter Jug, Lemon and Armchair," realized $3.85 million, the third-highest price achieved in the evening.

Picasso's "Glass of Absinthe," sculpted in 1914 after his cubist revolution in Paris, sold for $2.53 million, making it one of the few Ford lots to soar past their high estimates, in this case $1 million. The 9 1/2-inch-high painted bronze "Glass" holds a perforated absinthe spoon and the customary sugar cube.

Of the later works in Ford's collection, a Marc Chagall, the red-hued "Hommage a Paris: Notre Dame," sold to the Japanese gallery Urban for $3.19 million. Ford bought the Chagall in the same 1963 sale as a companion Miro for $52,000.

The last lot offered, Giacomo Manzu's six-foot-high bronze "The Ice Skater," went for $407,000, the only record of the evening.

Henry Ford II, the former chairman of the Ford Motor Co., died in Detroit in September 1987 at the age of 70. His estate was conservatively valued at $325 million, with much of it -- set up in a trust -- going to his third wife, Kathleen Ford. Henry Ford, a lifelong collector and connoisseur of fine pictures, was a vice chairman of Sotheby's from 1984 to 1987.

In May 1980 Ford sold off the cream of his impressionist/modern collection at Christie's, realizing a then-astounding $20.2 million for 10 paintings. Numerous records were set at that sale, including one for van Gogh's "The Poet's Garden," which fetched $5.72 million -- at the time, the second-highest price ever paid for a painting sold at auction. Cezanne's superb "Peasant in a Blue Smock" sold for $4.29 million. Christie's lost out to its arch-rival in winning this final consignment.

Though Sotheby's never divulges such information, it was obvious by tonight's results that the reserves set for the Ford artworks -- the minimum acceptable sale price determined by the consignor -- were quite low. The Ford estate, already rocked by publicity over family feuding, was eager to dispatch the works and leftovers.