One of Alberto Giacometti’s best-loved bronzes, “Walking Man I,” has broken the world record price for a work of art at auction, selling to an unidentified telephone bidder for $92.5 million, or $104.3 million with fees, at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday night. The previous record was $104.1 million, paid for a 1905 Picasso, “Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice),” at Sotheby’s in New York in 2004.
In an overflowing salesroom 10 bidders competed for the six-foot-tall sculpture, which was conceived in 1960 and cast a year later. The mystery buyer bid by phone to Philip Hook, an expert at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department. As the price kept rising, the bidding narrowed to just two contenders: Mr. Hook and Bill Ruprecht, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, who was bidding for another telephone client. When the winning bid went to Mr. Hook, the salesroom burst into applause.
Sotheby’s had expected the sculpture to bring $19.2 million to $28.8 million. The $104.3 million was more than three times the record for a Giacometti, which was set at Christie’s New York in May 2008 when “Standing Woman II” from 1959-60 sold for $27.4 million.
As soon as the hammer fell, speculation began as to who the buyer could be. Many dealers said the high price must have been paid by either a Russian or a Middle Eastern collector. Among the names that have surfaced are Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who has dropped enormous sums for important works in the past — he is said to have paid $86.3 million for a 1976 triptych by Francis Bacon — and Boris Ivanishvili, the Georgian mining magnate, who spent $95.2 million for Picasso’s “Dora Maar With Cat,” a large 1941 portrait that sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2006.
As perhaps the most recognizable of all Giacometti sculptures, “Walking Man I” is itself a trophy piece. Not only is the form impressive, but so is the size. The sculpture was cast in an edition of six and four artist proofs, most of which are in museums or private collections, where they are considered likely to stay. “Walking Man I” was being sold by Dresdner Bank in Germany, which acquired it in 1980.
It had been commissioned — along with a group of others bronzes — by the architect Gordon Bunshaft for Chase Manhattan Plaza in downtown Manhattan, where it was to stand alongside Bunshaft’s 60-story glass-and-steel Chase headquarters. Although the installation was never realized, some of the sculptures — and others that Giacometti created as experiments for the project — were made; many, though, he destroyed.
The Giacometti was not the only work to fetch a high price at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening. A 1913 landscape by Gustav Klimt, “Church in Cassone — Landscape With Cypresses,” brought $43.2 million from another telephone bidder. The price was a record for a landscape by the artist.
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