Article By SCOTT REYBURN MAY 11, 2015, The New York Times
To a medley of whoops, hollers and gasps on Monday night, Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” sold for $179.4 million including fees at Christie’s “Looking Forward to the Past” sale of artworks spanning the 20th century. The price was the highest on record for a work of art sold at auction, the company said, and was well over its estimate of $140 million.
Once the bidding reached $120 million, the Picasso was pursued by five clients on telephones, often in agonizingly slow, $1 million increments, before finally being sold to a buyer represented by Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international head of contemporary art. The previous all-time auction high, also at Christie’s, had been the $142.4 million paid by Elaine Wynn, co-founder of the Wynn casino empire, for Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in November 2013.
“It’s incredibly difficult to find big, A-plus-quality Picassos fresh to the market,” said the Paris-based dealer Thomas Bompard. “It’s a price for a unique thing. You can’t replace a painting like that.”
Less than 30 minutes after the Picasso sale, Alberto Giacometti’s gaunt bronze sculpture, “L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man)” sold for $126 million, or $141.3 million with fees, an auction high for any sculpture.
It was the first time that two works estimated at over $120 million each were for sale at the same auction.
Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” is the most opulent and imposing of a series of paintings that the Spanish-born artist produced from 1954 to 1955 in response to Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 Orientalist masterpiece, “Women of Algiers.” It had last been on the market in November 1997, when it sold for $31.9 million at a Christie’s auction of works owned by the American collectors, Victor and Sally Ganz. It was bought at that auction by a Saudi collector and kept in a house in London, said two dealers with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named because of concerns over confidentiality. Monday night’s seller, who was not identified, had been guaranteed a minimum price by Christie’s, which estimated the work would fetch about $140 million.
The Swiss-born sculptor Giacometti is renowned for his hauntingly emaciated figures made in postwar Paris when Europe was in the grip of Existentialist angst. He became one of the art market’s ultimate trophy names in February 2010 after the billionaire Lily Safra paid 65 million pounds (then $103.4 million) for the 1961 bronze, “Walking Man I,” at a Sotheby’s auction in London.
“Pointing Man,” an earlier, hand-painted bronze from 1947-51, is regarded by many as more compelling. Made in an edition of six, plus an artist’s proof, it had been acquired from the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1970. Christie’s anonymous seller has been identified as the New York real estate magnate Sheldon Solow, according to artinfo.com. The Giacometti had been estimated to sell for $130 million and did not carry any financial guarantees. A less obviously commercial lot than the Picasso, it attracted just two telephone bidders.
“Looking Forward to the Past” was the creation of Loic Gouzer, Christie’s contemporary specialist, whose auction of 35 works by on-trend contemporary artists — called “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday” — raised $134.6 million for the auction house last May. This time, Mr. Gouzer and his fellow specialists at Christie’s aimed to combine high-value, early-20th-century works including Picasso, Giacometti and Monet, which would normally headline an Impressionist and modern sale, with desirable contemporary pieces by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Peter Doig.
“This kind of cross-pollination is an effective way of getting collectors to buy in different areas,” said David Nisenson, a private dealer. “There’s a great demand for masterpieces, and there are a lot of wealthy new buyers who want to park their money.”
The 35-lot auction raised $705.9 million against an estimate of about $500 million with just one lot unsold. A high success rate had been ensured by 18 of the works being given pre-auction guarantees financed either by third parties or by Christie’s itself. Five lots, with a total lower estimate value of more than $200 million, were guaranteed by the auction house.
Generous guarantees from Christie’s, which is privately owned by the French luxury goods magnate François Pinault, and the chance to sell to ultra-wealthy collectors of both Impressionist and contemporary art, produced a concentration of the sort of works that billionaires seemed to want to buy.
“Prices have reached such high levels, and this has encouraged better things to appear on the market,” said the London art adviser Wendy Goldsmith, a former head of 19th-century European art at Christie’s. “The sellers are swayed by the figures. They want to strike while the iron’s hot. They know that nothing lasts forever.”
With such a high proportion of the works guaranteed at substantial levels, competition in the room was muted, with most of the bidding coming from telephones. Among the handful of works bought in the room, the 1924 Max Ernst painting “Le Couple (L’Accolade)” was bought by the New York dealer David Zwirner for $9.1 million, just above the high estimate.
But the evening was dominated by telephone bidding, with Picasso’s 1938 portrait of Dora Maar, “Buste de femme (Femme á la résille),” entered by the casino magnate Steve Wynn, reaching $67.4 million, above estimate, and the 1958 Mark Rothko abstract, “No. 36 (Black Stripe),” selling for $40.5 million. Both were bought by Christie’s staff-members based in Asia. (Final prices include the buyer’s premium: 25 percent of the first $100,000; 20 percent of the next $100,000 to $2 million; and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Among the works by living artists, Cady Noland’s 1989 silhouette-shaped screen print of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, “Bluewald,” sold to a client of Mr. Gorvy for $9.8 million, an auction high for the artist.
So what, if anything, does the success of this sale mean? Despite the departure of its former chief executive, Stephen Murphy, and concerns about guarantees inflating auction prices, Christie’s is still using its financial muscle to attract the world’s most valuable artworks into its sales. And the world’s wealthiest 0.1 percent is paying ever-higher prices to own them.
“After Murphy left people thought there would be fewer guarantees, but it’s more of the same,” said Guy Jennings, the managing director of the Fine Art Fund in London. “Christie’s is using high finance to squeeze the opposition out.”