Classic sculpture has reached dizzying prices at salesrooms in London and New York with many pieces coming up for sale only once
Art auctions unfold like Hollywood dramas, with billionaires in cameo roles, dressed to impress – and just like the films, record-breaking, recession-defying prices seem unbelievable. Yet, when presented with such unique pieces, bidders have only this single opportunity to buy a piece of art that may never appear on the market again.
In these uncertain times, big spenders are clearly not cutting back, but they are being more selective. And they are prepared to pay top dollar for anything of the highest quality when it comes to Impressionist and Modernist pieces – from the tried-and-trusted to the esoteric.
Edgar Degas’ Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer of Fourteen Years) (c 1881) appeared at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 24 June last year and sold for £15.8 million.
“Even in its day, it was seen as a groundbreaking sculpture,” says Sotheby’s senior international specialist in Impressionist and Modern art, Simon Stock. “This was partly because audiences were so shocked at the strong life-like resemblance.”
But Stock believes the enduring quality and desirability of the Degas have made it the recognised classic it is. He says: “What makes a sculpture significant ultimately comes down to three factors: its rarity, quality and provenance. Bidders are interested in who previously owned it – they feel like they’re buying a piece of history.”
The chance to purchase a critically acclaimed sculpture is usually a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity. According to Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider – which was sold for $28.2 million (£20.1m) last November in New York – had a number of individuals trying to buy a sculpture like it for years.
“Because it’s such a rare and iconic piece, there was a pent-up desire,” he says. “There was an avid and very ready audience for the object.”
But despite all that potential demand, the piece sold for around its estimate. “It wasn’t a situation where you had a runaway market and people were pushing well beyond what they perceived as the net value – but it still brought to market the top people,” says Gorvy.
Most of these high-end pieces are owned by private collectors. Perhaps this is due to museums’ strict parameters when it comes to prices. India Phillips, Bonhams’ head of Impressionist and Modern Art, believes the potential is always there at auctions for the price to go up.
“People can get carried away in the auction room – just the same as when we go out shopping and spend more than we originally planned. But if you love something, you throw caution to the wind and spend a bit more.”
Auguste Rodin’s L'Eternel Printemps (Eternal Springtime) (c 1884) – which recently sold for £938,500 against an estimate of £500,000-700,000 during the Bonhams’ Impressionist and Modern Art sale in February – is an example. “It was unusual, the speed that it went up. The bidders were very decisive, so it was really exciting. Normally they can be a bit slow because the buyers weigh up the pros and cons,” says Phillips.
With so many sculptures breaking records and selling for millions of pounds – from sculptures by Brancusi such as Bird in Flight or Mademoiselle Poganyto the stone heads of Modigliani and the great reclining figures of Henry Moore – it is hard to make a definitive list of the greatest sculptures ever sold.
One artist, though, who populates the top 20 list of sale prices several times is Alberto Giacometti, with works such as the Walking and Pointing Man, the standing female figures, Chariot and others.
Giacometti's bronze Chariot (1951-52) sold for $101 million at Sotheby’s record $422 million Impressionist and Modern Art sale in New York in November 2014.
David Norman, vice-chairman of Sotheby’s Americas and co-chairman of Worldwide Impressionist and Modern Art, describes the evening as “a thrilling spectacle”.
He says: “The piece seemed to project an aura, and when you were in front of it you couldn’t help but feel in the presence of an object of substance and poignancy.”
One impending sale that is bound to generate interest is Sworders’ Modern British Art sale at its new showroom in Stansted on April 12.
Among the lots is a bust of Sir Winston Churchill, taken from the statue in Parliament Square, cast by Ivor Roberts-Jones. Only six of these monumental busts were ever made, so it is a good example of the rarity principle in action.
Perhaps the unpredictability and drama make attending an auction so exciting. Norman compares an art auction to watching a game of tennis, with multiple players and volleys coming from every side of the court: “In the end it’s the last two bidders who engage in the final battle. Sometimes the back and forth can be slow and sometimes rapid. They can last seconds or minutes.”
What is key is that sculptures are priced reasonably, with fair presale estimates, as opposed to trying to pump the auction with unrealistic guide prices.
After all, as Norman puts it: “This is a competitive population – international art collectors – and they like to win.”
Going, going, gone!
Most expensive sculptures ever sold at auction
1. Alberto Giacometti: L’homme au Doigt (Pointing Man), 1947
$141.3 million (£101.2 million) – Christie’s, New York, May 2015
Described by Christie’s as a “rare masterpiece”, this iconic bronze broke the record for the most expensive sculpture ever auctioned.
2. Alberto Giacometti: L’Homme qui marche I, 1961
$104.3 million (£65 million) – Sotheby’s, London, February 2010
Giacometti is best known for his tall, thin figures, and this life-size work ranks among the most striking of the artist’s bronzes. It became the most expensive work of art ever auctioned at that time.
3. Alberto Giacometti: Chariot, 1951-52
$101 million (£72.4 million) – Sotheby’s, New York, November 2014
Conceived in 1950 and cast in 1951-52, Giacometti’s famous bronze cast Chariot was sold for $1 million more than its estimate. It is one of only two casts remaining in private hands.
4. Amedeo Modigliani: Tête, 1910-12
$59.5 million (£42.6 million) – Christie’s, Paris, June 2010
Modigliani’s stone carvings are arguably the most sought-after works of modern art. Tête is one of the only Modigliani pieces remaining in private hands, and is the most expensive work of art ever auctioned in France.
5. Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000
$58.4 million (£41.8 million) – Christie’s, New York, November 2013
This 12-foot stainless steel sculpture was not just a record for the artist, but also broke records to become the most expensive piece of art by a living artist sold at auction.
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