By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
It was a thrilling victory, but a narrow one. Once the currency conversions were worked out, it was clear that Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme qui marche I (Walking Man I), offered at Sotheby’s in London on Feb. 3, had made history, fetching £65 million, or $104.3 million, to claim the title of “most expensive artwork sold at auction” from Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe (Boy With a Pipe), a 1905 painting that fetched $104.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2004. The title doesn’t typically change hands every year, or even every few years, but turnover is not all that infrequent, either. The Giacometti’s triumph is notable in more ways than one: It marks the first time that a sculpture has captured the record, it is the first artwork produced in multiples to do so and it is the first postwar work to achieve this feat. The implications for the art world, and the sculpture world in particular, are just starting to be assessed.
Philip Hook, senior director of Impressionist and modern art for Sotheby’s in London, was not terrifically surprised that the Giacometti did so well; he describes the sculpture as “the 20th-century equivalent of Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’sThinker.” The bidders who pursued it believed they were seizing a once-in-a-lifetime chance. “One heard from more than one person who was interested in it,” says Hook, adding that many prospective buyers told him, “It’s the first time in 40 years there’s been an opportunity to buy such a Giacometti bronze, and I didn’t want to miss it.” Hook is referring to the fact that a lifetime cast of Walking Man I has never come to auction; Christie’s sold a posthumous cast in London in 1988 for £3.7 million ($6.8 million), but no others have come up. The pair of bidders who were left to do battle after the other aspirants dropped out drove the price of the 6-foot-tall sculpture to never-before-seen heights. Hook manned the victorious phone, but declines to say more, citing confidentiality. In late February reports emerged indicating that billionaire Lily Safra might have been the purchaser.
The presale estimate of £12–18 million ($18.5–27.7 million), while robust, does not hint at Walking Man I’s potential to break the barrier for sculpture, but in retrospect, Giacometti was a strong candidate. Sixteen of his top 20 auction results are for bronzes, and all 16 of those bronzes sold between the year 2000 and this past February, the majority bringing double-digit millions. Christie’s set the previous auction record for the artist only 21 months before, in May 2008 in New York, where a 1959–60 cast of Grande femme debout II sold for $27.4 million. In addition, pieces by the artist are growing scarcer. Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries in New York, says, “We had a Giacometti exhibit in 1994. The catalogue had almost every major piece in it. The idea of getting one or two back for sale … we do get them from time to time, but there’s certainly not the availability that there was even 15 years ago.”
The upside to having a smaller pool of Giacomettis on the market is that it provides evidence of a greater interest in sculpture in general. “In the 1970s sculpture was not as highly valued. Now it’s catching up, and not just by pure chance,” says Eike Schmidt, the James Ford Bell curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, explaining that the medium has ebbed and flowed in “very slow waves” over time and that we are experiencing the rise of a new wave. He and other sculpture experts suggest that the current interest is propelled by a steady stream of museum shows on sculpture and by the three-dimensional works of prominent contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst. “There has been a certain bias against sculpture,” says Schmidt. “At universities it’s less taught to students, even today. There are more monographs on painters, from the past and from the 20th century, than on sculptors. That is something that is in the process of changing.”
Conor Jordan, New York head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, has witnessed a rise in connoisseurship among collectors of the medium. “Traditionally, there had been some reserve about sculptures produced in multiples, because there was always another chance to buy,” he says. “But people seem to be more informed about the qualities of patina and casting, and when they see an A-plus example, they are prepared to pursue it.” Jed Morse, curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, concurs: “Over the past two decades we’ve seen more of an appreciation of sculpture in general with the increase in value of sculpture in the art market. The editioning of sculpture doesn’t seem to have limited its value on the open market. Take bronze casts of works by Rodin. They were done in large editions, and some were posthumous. That hasn’t seemed to diminish the appetite for Rodin.”
Robert Bowman, a London-based sculpture dealer who specializes in Rodin, has the numbers to prove Morse’s point. “In the last 10 years prices for Rodin have gone up 400 to 500 percent,” he says, citing the 40-centimeter (15.7-inch) version of The Kissas an example. A total of 96 casts in this size were produced during Rodin’s lifetime, and between 2000 and 2010, Bowman says he has seen their prices rise from £60,000–70,000 ($92,500–$108,000) to £200,000–250,000 ($308,500–$385,000).
Though Walking Man I benefited from the broadening interest in sculpture, it is an unusual piece, and it is hard to say whether its stellar performance at auction will have a positive, clear-cut impact on works by other modernist sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Jean Arp or Jacques Lipschitz. Each artist had his own distinct visual signature; the main aspects that the emaciated bronzes of Giacometti share with the streamlined, timeless forms of Brancusi, the spidery, colorful constructions of Calder and the stylized figures of Moore, Arp and Lipschitz are a medium, an inclination toward abstraction and a general time period. Joel Rosenkranz of the sculpture gallery Conner Rosenkranz in New York says, “I don’t think it will have a crossover effect on one particular sculptor. Giacometti was so distinctive; he was unlike anyone else. I don’t think there’s a comparable sculptor in America or Europe about whom people say, ‘I can’t afford a Giacometti, but I can afford so-and-so.’ But I think there will be a positive effect on the market in general and people might have a different attitude toward what the ceiling of an individual artist’s price level must be.”
Auction results show that there has been a rising tide of appreciation for modern sculpture. Brancusi’s current record was set last year with Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme. L.R.), an abstract piece from 1914–17 carved from a single piece of unpainted oak, a material for which he is not particularly known. It was the second best seller at the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection sale, held in February 2009 in Paris by Christie’s, where it commanded €29.1 million ($37.7 million). The former Brancusi high mark was set in 2005 at the same house in New York by a more familiar work, Oiseau dans l’espace (Bird in Space), which garnered $27.4 million. Moore’s current record was set in June 2008 by a bronze Draped Reclining Woman(1957–58), sold at Christie’s for £4.2 million ($8.4 million). Interestingly, none of these prices come close to the previous record for a sculpture at auction, which was set in December 2007 at Sotheby’s New York by the Guennol Lioness, fashioned circa 3000–2800 B.C., which fetched $57.1 million.
Walking Man I has a somewhat curious history. It was originally part of an outdoor art installation planned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York that would have been a distillation of the artist’s main late-career themes—a standing woman and a monumental head based on that of his brother, Diego, were also part of the artist’s vision. Giacometti never completed the project, but he had two iterations of the walking man, four versions of the standing female and the head cast in bronze. In 1965 the travel-averse artist paid a visit to New York that rekindled his interest in the Chase Manhattan Plaza, but his new idea for a single monumental work did not come to fruition. He died of heart failure in January 1966, mere months after the trip.Walking Man I was executed in an edition of 10 lifetime casts (six, plus four artist’s proofs) and two posthumous casts. According to the Alberto and Annette Giacometti foundation in Paris, four casts, including the one just sold at Sotheby’s, are in private hands, as are three casts of Giacometti’s Walking Man II.
As the author of The Ultimate Trophy: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World (Prestel, 2009), Hook has familiarized himself with some past holders of the “most expensive artwork at auction” title, such as Picasso and Van Gogh, and can place the Giacometti in context. “I suppose this probably will give Giacometti a higher profile,” he says. “I don’t mean Giacomettis will be worth more than they were two weeks ago. That was absolutely the most desirable Giacometti you could own as a collector—it was the top of the tree. The Picasso and the Van Goghs that held the record before the Giacometti were great works, but they were not demonstrably the greatest works by the artists concerned. Arguably, it was in Giacometti’s case.”
In addition, the “most expensive” accolade is limited in crucial ways. Though it is fun to know who holds it and exciting to see it change hands, it doesn’t tell us much about the state of the art market, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the winning artist is the best. “It was a roll of the dice whether it was Giacometti or another artist,” says Findlay. “It’s self-chosen because it needs to be sold. It’s not like a race where all the great works of art are lined up. Some types of things never come to auction. It’s not a true sample. It’s what happens to be available at a particular time. There are works by other artists that are of equal quality that didn’t go to market that day.”
Indeed, some in the art world feel that the title is fairly meaningless. “It’s good news, obviously, but it needs to be part of a larger trend,” says Jonathan Spies, director of the Zabriskie Gallery in New York, of the Giacometti result. “The fact that a household name sold well doesn’t mean much.” Which prompts the question—why do we care about the most expensive artwork sold at auction, and what made us start to care?
The notion appears to have sprung from the actions of the late Peter Wilson, who became the chairman of Sotheby’s in 1957 and led a concerted, and successful, campaign to up the glamour quotient of his profession. “He was the one who made art and art prices sexy,” says Hook, who recounts key Wilson-inspired events in his book. He points to the Goldschmidt auction, a 1958 London evening sale of seven paintings by Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Renoir, as a turning point. None of the canvases earned the title of most expensive artwork sold at auction, but the record for an Impressionist work was broken three times during the seven-lot sale. Cézanne’s Garçon au gilet rouge (Boy in a Red Vest) finally claimed it with a bid of £220,000 ($616,000). One year later, the media reported that a Rubens altarpiece from 1634, Adoration of the Magi, fetched £275,000 ($770,000) at Sotheby’s London to become the most expensive artwork sold at auction.
The history of the title gives no clue as to how long Walking Man I might keep the honor, but it’s fair to assume that it won’t be the last to hold it. “I don’t think the curve in prices is going to go down. It’s going to go up,” says Robert Landau of Landau Fine Art in Montreal, Canada, which specializes in 20th-century works. “I don’t think the artwork will be an anomaly. I don’t think $100 million is a figure we won’t see again. We may see $200 million. It all depends on what comes up for sale.”