Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Subject of Art #1: Giacometti and the Value of Art in Today's World

Unless you were paying close attention, you may have missed the new record set for the highest price ever paid at auction for a single work of art. On February 3 an anonymous bidder paid $104.3 million through Sotheby's London for a bronze sculpture entitled "L'Homme Qui Marche 1 (Walking Man 1)" by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966).

This sale surpasses Pablo Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe," sold for $104.17 million in 2004. Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises” sold for $102.3 million in 1990 and is additionally notable as the first work of art to surpass $100 million at an auction. How is it that a relatively obscure artist now holds a record previously held by two pioneers who radically shifted the direction and purpose of Western art in the Modern age?

Giacometti was born into a relatively well-to-do Swiss family and his father, Giovanni, was a respected painter in his day. After attending art school the younger Giacometti went to Paris and studied with another little-known sculptor. There he developed his signature style of cubist and surrealist sculpture and it was as a part of the Surrealism movement that he began to get some notice in the art world. His obsessive manner of carving his figures that led to their strange, vaguely disturbing appearances was the sort of enigmatic symbol that the Surrealists loved, clearly seeming to hold some deep truth within it and yet the nature of that truth remained elusive. Giacometti perhaps caught hold of the alienation and post-traumatic stress that must have been part of life in Europe as the devastation of World War II transitioned into the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale of 1962, which brought worldwide attention to his work shortly before his death.

It's possible, but unlikely, that the buyer was a really big fan of Giacometti's work. The more reasonable answer for this record-breaking sale is a combination of economics and lessons learned from the past.

In the 1980's when the economic situation was similarly bleak, many art speculators lost millions of dollars on the work of living artists, who had plenty of time to be written off by insensitive art critics and the capricious whims of fashion. Since then, art buyers have focused on more secure art investments—works by artists that have secured their place as influential, pioneering artists and have already been written into the history books.

“L'Homme Qui Marche 1" happened to go on the market at the right time. Twenty years ago, the last time a Giacometti sculpture of similar size went to sale at auction, the winning bid was less than $7 million. On February 3 it took only eight minutes for the Giacometti auction price to sky-rocket up above $100 million! It's likely that if Van Gogh's "Irises" went back on the block today it would smash Giacometti's record with ease because its value has appreciated significantly since its own record-breaking sale. This is our own take on this sale—let us know your thoughts and your prediction on the next record-breaker.

For a list and analysis of The World’s Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings (sold at an auction or not) check out our recent series on the subject.

For all the supplies and inspiration you need to start your next masterpiece, visit BINDERS online.

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