NEW YORK, NOV. 13 -- The art market woke up at Sotheby's tonight and delivered a surprising $84.4 million in a snappy sale marked by a relatively small percentage of unsold works.

Contrasting with Monday evening's poor showing at the Henry Ford II sale, which was plagued by an expensive percentage of unsold works, tonight's results momentarily erased the gloom. "The temperature of bidding was a healthy one this evening," commented John L. Marion, chief auctioneer and chairman of Sotheby's North America. "The picture we look at tonight is a very pleasant one. ... {But} it's still a confusing picture. There is no clear answer."

Although the first of four paintings from the Greta Garbo collection failed to sell at its minimum of $1.55 million, the next three attracted solid bidding and realized $15.95 million -- just above the low estimate for the four pictures.

"The family is ecstatic," said the elated Theodore A. Kurz, the estate attorney and former personal lawyer of the great screen enchantress. "Ironically, the Renoir that didn't sell is one of the family's favorites, and we're going to try to keep it on our wall. But as you know, Uncle Sam is our senior partner, and we have lots of taxes to pay."

According to Marion, after the first of the Garbo Renoirs sold, "the confidence in the room increased dramatically. Once that was over, it felt like a pretty normal sale."

Strong interest in those three Renoirs pushed bidding for the sweet 1909 portrait of "Leontine and Coco (Claude Renoir)" to $5.72 million, including its 10 percent buyer's premium. The picture hung over the mantelpiece in Garbo's art-filled Manhattan apartment.

Renoir's "Seated Child in a Blue Smock (Portrait of Edmond Renoir, Jr.)," painted in 1889, realized $7.04 million, the second-highest price of the evening. The girlish-looking nephew of the painter hung in Garbo's drawing room above a marble-topped 18th-century Regence commode. (The commode will be dispatched Thursday with the rest of her furniture and lesser artworks.)

Renoir's "Secret," a romantically charged composition from 1897, failed to sell.

The fourth of the major Garbo lots, Pierre Bonnard's sublime still life "The Corn Poppies," arranged in a painted vase, sold for $3.19 million. All of these pictures had been purchased by Garbo in 1942 from New York dealers.

Exiting Garbo's lots, Claude Monet's reflective and calming "Waterlilies" from 1907 sold for $9.46 million to a Japanese dealer, the highest price realized tonight. The purple flowers float dreamily on their green leaves across Monet's landscaped lagoon.

Another Monet, this one capturing the fog and pollution of London, "Waterloo Bridge, Temps Couvert," realized $3.4 million. It was one of 37 views of the Thames he painted from his balcony at the Savoy Hotel.

"Bouquet of Peonies," a small but compelling still life by Edouard Manet, completed months before his death, realized a hefty $4.4 million, the fifth-highest price registered tonight.

Edgar Degas' vibrant pastel over monotype, "Dancers on the Stage," sold for $2.53 million.

Sixteen works from the collection of department store scion Jerome K. Ohrbach snared $8.08 million during the first part of the marathon evening sale, pushing the grand total to $84.4 million. That compares with Ohrbach's pre-sale estimate of $12.5 million to $17.9 million. As it seems with the "new realism" in the salesrooms, reaching the high estimate has become a distant memory of the departed bull market.

Renoir's concentrated composition "The Writing Lesson," painted in 1895, brought $1.54 million, going to a Japanese dealer for the highest price of the Ohrbach lot.

Pierre Bonnard's quiet interior scene titled "Le Vestibule" sold for $1.26 million.

Henri Matisse's seascape "The Open Window" brought a billowy $522,500, exceeding the high estimate of $500,000.

In the "various owners" part of the sale, "The Three Shades," Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture of a trio of nude men, failed to sell.

In the wake of Monday evening's Henry Ford II sale, where 35 of the 36 lots were guaranteed by Sotheby's for an undisclosed sum, with 13 of the them failing to find buyers, the huge auction firm played down the pain in a statement: "While Sotheby's Holdings may sustain a loss on the Ford Collection, the final result will depend upon the ultimate disposition of a number of important paintings. Any loss, should it occur, is not expected to be material. Management believes the loss should not exceed $5 million pre-tax."

Sotheby's also said some of the bought-in Fords may be returned to the heirs, lessening the burden of the guarantee. The others remain the property of Sotheby's and presumably will be sold at some future date.

Meanwhile, the parade of guaranteed lots effortlessly sold tonight included 10 works from the estate of Catherine Schlumberger Jones. Among the highlights was Rene Magritte's surreal bird in flight, "The Idol," bringing $1.21 million. Another Magritte concoction, "Philosophy in the Boudoir," featuring a nightgown (with breasts) on a closet hanger and a pair of high-heeled shoes with human toes protruding, brought $1.92 million, well over the high estimate of $900,000.

Max Ernst's haunting "Cemetery of the Birds" sold for $962,500.

Beyond the Schlumberger Jones guaranteed lots, a startling Picasso figure, "Woman With Bird" (it's perched on her shoulder), also guaranteed by Sotheby's, brought $4.01 million, the sixth-highest price realized in the sale.

Ironically, the only museum deaccession transaction of the evening, the Hirshhorn's "The Studio" by Alberto Giacometti, failed to find a buyer. Bidding stopped at a disappointing $325,000. The painting was exhibited at the Hirshhorn during the museum's inaugural exhibition in 1974-75. The proceeds will benefit the museum's acquisitions program.

Even Sotheby's relatively robust results tonight pale in comparison with last November's. Last year, at the top end of the art boom, this evening sale brought in $227.9 million. The same comparison applies to the sale last May, when Sotheby's sold $286 million in impressionist/modern art, pumped up by Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette," which alone fetched $78.1 million.

That one painting by Renoir exceeded tonight's total for the 55 works sold in the "various owners" sale.