LONDON—Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Feb. 3 was still less than a third of the way through its 39 lots when it became a blockbuster event that broke worldwide records, propelling the sale total far beyond the house’s estimate of £69million/102million ($111million/164million). In all, the sale realized £146million ($236million) with 31, or 80 percent, of the lots finding buyers.
Alberto Giacometti’s bronze L’Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I), 1960, a rare six-foot-tall lifetime cast estimated at £12million/18million, soared to £65million ($104.3million), a new record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. The price just beat the previous record of $104.2million, paid at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2004 for Pablo Picasso’s Rose Period Garçon à la pipe, 1905.
The Giacometti was the object of intense competition among at least ten bidders, according to Sotheby’s officials. The only lifetime cast of this sculpture ever to come to auction, L’Homme qui marche I is part of a commission the artist worked on for Chase Manhattan Bank’s downtown Manhattan plaza. Giacometti was selected for the commission, over candidates including Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi, by a committee of curators and museum executives from New York and Boston. The sculpture was executed in 1960, which marked the “high point of Giacometti’s mature period,” according to Sotheby’s catalogue. The artist’s “lean, wiry figures reached their ultimate form during this period.” In preparation for the commission, the artist made at least 40 versions of the walking man; however, he destroyed many of them before eventually abandoning the project. Still, a cast of the sculpture was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1962, indicating that Giacometti “was evidently satisfied with the individual figures,” the catalogue states.
Offers rolled in even before auctioneer Henry Wyndham officially opened the bidding, with shouts of “£9million” and then “£12million” heard in the room. Most of the bidding took place via telephone, with the exception of two bidders in the room: New York dealer Nancy Whyte and London dealer Ezra Nahmad. Whyte dropped out at £22million; Nahmad continued to bid up to £26million. After that it came down to a duel between two bidders on the phone with Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht and senior director of Impressionist and modern art in Europe Philip Hook. In a matter of minutes the work was sold to Hook’s bidder for a hammer price of £58million, prompting a round of applause in the room.
Following the sale, Sotheby’s specialists would not comment on the identity or the nationality of the buyer, nor would they offer a geographical breakdown of the buyers in the sale as a whole. Some observers speculated that the buyer was Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, though a spokesperson for Abramovich denied this.
Several experts were taken aback at the price, noting that many observers had predicted a top bid of about £30million ($48million). Said one dealer, who did not want to be identified, “It’s a lifetime cast with a great provenance and very good condition. It’s a fantastic piece and a trophy.” The price may seem “astonishing,” the dealer added, considering the sculpture is one of an edition of ten (six lifetime casts and four artist’s proofs), but “on the other hand, there was still more than one person out there willing to spend this kind of money.” Given that the winning bid came through high-level Sotheby’s executives, the dealer said, “I think the identity of this person is going to remain their own business, and whoever it is that is going to own this will enjoy it privately, presumably for a long time.”
Another, posthumous cast of Walking Man I from this edition sold for £3.7million ($6.8million) at Christie’s in London in November 1988. Other casts of L’Homme qui marche I are in museums, including the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Fondation Maeght, St. Paul-de-Vence, France; and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.
Melanie Clore, Sotheby’s cochair of Impressionist and modern art worldwide, said that the intense competition for the bronze “demonstrates the continued quest for quality that compels today’s collectors.”
Demand and buyer confidence were undoubtedly given a boost by the price paid for a Giacometti sculpture at Sotheby’s in New York last fall: L’Homme qui chavire, conceived in 1950 and cast in 1951, sold for $19.3million against an $8million/12million estimate. That work was consigned by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, who had reportedly paid about $20million for it. The Newhouse sculpture had reportedly been offered privately for as much as $20million.
Sotheby’s specialists had evidently been successful in persuading Newhouse to lower his expectations for the work, which paid off in the end. The $19.3million result could only have encouraged the German Commerzbank, owners of L’Homme qui marche I, to consign it to this sale, where its estimate ($19.3million/29million) was in line with the final price for L’Homme qui chavire.
Sotheby’s second blockbuster lot, and one of three lots in the sale carrying an estimate of £10million or more, was Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like Church in Cassone (Landscape with Cypresses), 1913, a view of the village on Lake Garda in Italy (estimate: £12million/18million). The Klimt drew four bidders, who took the price to £26.9million ($43.2million). The work had been the subject of lengthy negotiations between its present owner, an Austrian who acquired it in 1962, and Georges Jorisch, the heir of a previous owner, from whom it was allegedly stolen by the Nazis. The painting’s sale at auction was dependent on the resolution of a confidential settlement between the two.
The third eight-figure lot in the sale was Pichet et fruits sur une table, 1893–94, a still life by Paul Cézanne. Estimated at £10million/15million, it fetched £11.8million ($18.9million). The painting has had a somewhat uneven track record at auction: In 1989 it sold for $11.55million (£7million) to a Japanese buyer; however, when it was offered at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2001, it failed to sell on a $14million/20million estimate.
At Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Feb. 2, the star lot was Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme (Jacqueline), 1963, a portrait of the artist’s second wife, which sold for £8.1million ($12.9million) on a £3million/4million estimate. The evening sale and a separate sale of Surrealist art took in £76.9million ($122.2million) on a combined estimate of £54.5million/76.8million.
A full report on the London Impressionist and modern sales will appear in the next issue of ARTnewsletter.