It stands just under 5 feet tall, a painted bronze woman atop a small platform with two wheels. But Alberto Giacometti's 1950 "Chariot" sculpture could make history Tuesday, when it goes on the auction block at Sotheby's.
With an estimated worth of more than $100 million, many dealers said it could become the most expensive sculpture ever sold and could help pull the increasingly top-heavy art market through another record-breaking auction season.
"This could easily set the record," said Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery. "It's top quality, and it's extremely rare."
To break the record for a sculpture, the work would have to top the price of a previous Giacometti. His 6-foot-tall "Walking Man I" piece, which portrays a lanky man in stride, fetched $104.3 million at a Sotheby's sale in London in 2010.
"Chariot," however, may be even more coveted. Many art historians consider it to be Giacometti's masterpiece, and one of the seminal works of modern art. Giacometti made only six "Chariots," and only two remain in private hands. The one Sotheby's is selling had been with the same collector for more than 40 years, making it even more valuable.
A lot is riding on those two spindly wheels. As the first of the major fall auctions, Tuesday's sale is expected to set the tone for the auctions of more than $1.5 billion worth of art over the next two weeks. If the sale of "Chariot" hits any kind of bump, the remaining sales may not be as strong.
The spring auctions were strong, but the global economy has weakened substantially since then, especially in China, Russia and Latin America. Newly rich collectors from emerging markets have been fueling much of the bidding at the top of the market, and slower wealth creation could lead to less heated bidding.
At the same time, financial markets have become more volatile, leading to less investing confidence among the very wealthy. Dealers and art experts say the post-war and contemporary market, supported by Warhols, Basquiats, Lichtensteins and Rothkos, is especially fragile given the huge run-up in prices in recent years. Dealers also said this year's sales are flooded with works for sale.
"A potential crisis looms in the contemporary art market when the evening sale catalog for Christie's vastly exceeds the size of a Gutenberg Bible," Fabricant said.
The sales are especially heavy on works by Andy Warhol, with Christie's and Sotheby's offering up 19 of his paintings. Gallerists said the lots, which include portraits of Elvis, Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando, could top $300 million.
Sotheby's and Christie's are also both selling major Mark Rothko paintings. Christie's is selling two from the estate of Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the widow of philanthropist Paul Mellon. Sotheby's is selling a Rothko, titled "No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange)," which could top $50 million.