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Nature morte aux tulipes. Picture: AP

An erotically charged Picasso oil painting of his mistress alongside tulips and fruit has sold for $US41.5 million ($40 million) on an otherwise anaemic night for high-end art in New York.

Nature morte aux tulipes, painted in 1932, was the star of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art sale in Manhattan on Thursday.

The pre-sale estimate for the work had been between $US35 million and $US50 million.

The painting depicts the head of Marie-Therese Walter, who was Picasso's lover and famous muse, poised over a suggestive flower arrangement.

Its sale was one of the few bright spots for Sotheby's, with 30 per cent of lots failing to sell and the total haul of the evening amounting to $US163 million - below the low end of the overall $US169-245 million estimate.

This followed a similar performance at the Christie's auction on Wednesday.

Another of the Marie-Therese series offered by Sotheby's, Femme a la fenetre (Marie-Therese), sold for $US17.2 million, inside the $US15-20 million estimate.

Other successes included the $US12.1 million paid for Champ de ble by Claude Monet.