Art lovers and investors dug deep in Auckland last night to set record prices at an auction of early and rare paintings.

The main piece was New Zealand artist Charles Frederick Goldie's oil on canvas of a sleeping Maori chief, offered by opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Forty Winks was the only painting Goldie did of Rutene Te Uamairangi, a Kingite Warrior of Taupo.

It sold to a private New Zealand buyer for $573,000 - a record auction price for a Goldie.

International Art Centre director Richard Thomson said it was one of several paintings to sell for a record price in an environment largely unaffected by the recession.

A painting by an unknown artist of one of the earliest images of Maori commerce in Auckland sold for $18,000.

The 1865 watercolour featured a Maori man selling crayfish on Shortland St, outside the watch and clock maker's shop of William Buchanan.

Mr Thomson said it was painted before a lot of reclamation in downtown Auckland and Shortland St would have been on or close to the waterfront.

"He probably plucked them [the crayfish] straight out of the sea."

An oil painting called Kowhai River, Waimakariri, by Cecil Fletcher Kelly, sold for $15,000, above the expected price of up to $12,000 and a record auction price for a Kelly.

Mr Thomson said one highly encouraging aspect of the sale in the bidding for Dame Kiri's Goldie was that there were so many genuine buyers in the $400,000 range.

"It is a very strong market."

Goldie paintings were as sound an investment as anything in the art market, he said.

"I think it will be a million-dollar painting one day.

"They [Goldies] are prized, they are gold.

"There is no sign of the recession in the art market.

"It is a solid and safe place to put your money."

One work which did not sell was a painting by Ralph Hotere, expected to bring up to $100,000.

Bidding reached $55,000 and a possible private sale was under negotiation.

A 1906 oil painting by Sam Stuart of a Maori chief sold for $33,000 and an oil painting of the man who brewed one of the country's most famous beers, James Speight, sold for $6500.

- NZPA