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Giacometti: What makes an artwork worth £65m?

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Will Gompertz | 08:59 UK time, Friday, 5 February 2010

A life-size bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti has been sold at auction in the UK for the world-record price of £65,001,250. But how can a piece of art command such a price, especially in today's economic conditions?

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The answer, according to Melanie Clore, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby's, is five-fold: condition, rarity, reputation of the artist, competition, and confidence that the piece will at least hold its value.

If each of the five tests is passed, then it's game on in the auction room. Here's how the piece, Walking Man, fits those conditions:

Condition: Top-notch. Walking Man had never been outside and was very well looked-after.

Reputation: Blue-chip. Giacometti stands the test of time; art historians now consider him to be one of the most important sculptors, not only of the 20th Century, but also of any century.

Rarity: The piece gets marked down a little here. It was from an original edition of six (you can see three of the six in the following galleries: Carnegie Institute Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence in southern France and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York). But it picks up points due to the great rarity of a "lifetime-cast" Giacometti sculpture coming to the market.

Homme Qui Marche by Alberto GiacomettiCompetition: A lot. And a lot more than there used to be. There were bidders from at least 30 countries active at the sale at Sotheby's. Melanie Clore says that when she started working there 20-odd years ago, you'd be lucky to have bidders from two countries. Now, more competition drives up prices. She cites modern communications as a major factor. But you could also point to the geographical widening of the super-rich and the rapid growth over the last 10 years of modern art museums and galleries, all of which need high-quality works of art to attract visitors.

Investment: Solid. According to Clore, this is not a speculators' market. She says that however obsessed with or enamoured of a work of art a collector may be, anyone paying this sort of money wants to have the reassurance of knowing that, in the future, the price is likely to rise. Buying a piece by an artist such as Giacometti - who has a long-established global reputation and whose work will only become rarer - is, she surmises, a fairly safe bet.

All of this makes me wonder which single work of art I would buy if it came on the market and money were no object.

The answer today (I can change my mind later) would be Paul Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from 1904. What about you? What work of art would you "buy"?


  • Comment number 1.

    Turner's 'Sun Setting Over a Lake'. No doubt at all.

    But I'm fortunate that it's at least in this country and in a place I (and anyone else) can visit it from time to time. Nobody's likely to see this particualar scuplture again any time soon, probably not even its new owner which is kind of sad.

    Very much enjoying this new blog incidentally. Thank you.

  • Comment number 2.

    As an artist myself, I can appreciate art since I have been educated in the history thereof. However, to the ordinary man on the street, replacing any random piece of bronzed work found plonked in the middle of a town park with this sculpture would mean nothing. Ordinary folk would walk past this piece with as much indifference as any other piece on a daily basis.

    Art is obviously in the eye of the beholder, and people who can afford to do so can of course spend their money as they please. But elevating the price of this piece to an obscene level such as this (I mean seriously, could the orphans of Haiti eat this thing?) is just getting a bit silly and makes a mockery of the creative process.

    As with most art, the price of this work seems to have been deduced by the elaborate posteuring of critics who always seem to know exactly what the artist was thinking at the time of creating the article. Art critics as a whole need to enlighten themselves not with pomp and self-importance, but with a re-read of The Emporer's New Clothes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Oh, and as for what I'd buy if I could afford it? Anything by Franz Marc (Der Blaue Reiter) or Alphonse Mucha (Art Nouveau). But since my budget only allows for prints by such greats, I'd have to say that an original piece of Batiq art would do (on sale in Camden Market, as far as I'm aware - only seen it once in passing). This work is beautiful, original in style and composition, and is created by people who have a genuine passion for what they do. And surely that's what art is really all about?

  • Comment number 4.

    To Bob - couldn't agree more. Lovely though it is to dream of owning works by the great masters, it can be just as satisfying to own a work of beauty by a local or less known artist, realistically purchasable at a local gallery, art studio open day, or even Camden Market or local equivalent.

    Plus you're supporting the artist then rather than a gallery, an auction house and the consortium of speculative business people known as "the art market", and that has to be better overall for the future of art.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think it's wonderful that something produced by one human can be so valuable to another, it inspires faith in our species' abilities.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'd probably buy Ragazzo al Mare (Hypolitte Flandrin (sp?)), or any of many by John Singer Sargent (Lady Agnew comes to mind and also a street scene whos name I can't remember, and Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller...), .... but there are many artists whose work I love, past and contemporary, many of them unknown, it would be just too hard to choose!

  • Comment number 7.

    The first study I did for my art GCSE many years ago was on Giacometti so if money was no object I might have gone for this. I made a series of figures out of tin foil which are a more than adequate substitute however :]

  • Comment number 8.

    "Walking Man had never been outside..."

    Contrary to the picture on the wall behind the sculpture in the opening shots of the clip...

  • Comment number 9.

    (5) What's the interpretation of value here?
    'as if' anyone could be inspired by the ability of our species to create such an obscene disparity of wealth!
    I hope this I'm right in assuming this is a joke.

    I agree with everything Bob has said here (2&3).

  • Comment number 10.

    @9 - Value is the price someone will pay for something, it's quite effective in a free market. Avatar is the best movie ever made because it made the most money. I hope this clears it up. This is my real name by the way.

  • Comment number 11.

    I would buy The Snail by Matisse, but as owning something is only fun if you share it, I would put it up in the ticket hall at Farringdon Station.

    That said concrete art is always ridiculously expensive. How many writers and musicians could be kept for this sort of money? What would Mozart or James Joyce done with this sort of finance? Probably drunk it actually, but you get my point.

    Love the new blog by the way, Will.

  • Comment number 12.

    No offence meant Asif. However, as well as economic value there is also ethical value. £65m could do a lot to relieve people's suffering (the statue seems to suggest starvation) - and there would still be plenty to spend on an expensive work of art.

  • Comment number 13.

    "You can never be too rich or too thin."

  • Comment number 14.

    I am an art dealer specialising in the upper end of the Old master and 19th century art market and am frequently amazed at soaring values and what seems to be an unreasonable disparity in the way the market values one great artist, work or school in comparison with another. But this is the way markets operate in any area of commerce.
    To suggest that somehow it is immoral for art to be so highly valued when the money could be spent relieving suffering is wholly illogical – if that were the case then the contents of art museums should be sold off and the proceeds handed out as relief for poverty, education or health care. Maybe the empty buildings could then be turned into housing for the poor. Would society as a whole really be better off? The money would be spent, but the future would still bring poverty, suffering and poor education while the works of art would be dispersed never to be recovered. Many of these works have actually been given by wealthy collectors who having enjoyed them have given them to a museum they support – that is how the three Standing Men now in public collections each entered those museums. It is very possible that the present purchaser may do the same one day – just as it is very possible that he or she is a considerable philanthropist and benefactor of public charities.
    Some might judge the purchase of expensive shoes, frivolous clothes, and indulgence in an expensive restaurant or fine wine as excessive when the money might be sent to relieve the suffering in Haiti. The reality is that the only way poverty and suffering will be diminished and new buildings constructed that meet earthquake resistant codes in that benighted country, is if there is real investment in business and agriculture that might bring employment and opportunity. With this we may also find there are great Haitian artists just waiting to be discovered. If individuals are not encouraged to collect and praised, rather than chastised for doing so, then art and artists will have no future anywhere.

  • Comment number 15.

    (# 10) A lot has been inferred from my few short sentences!
    "contents of art museums should be sold off" "empty buildings… housing for the poor" "to be handed out as relief for poverty" - where did that come from? And comparing such frivolous indulgences as expensive shoes etc with spending £65million is just plain silly. This is trivialising a serious issue.

    You say you are "amazed at... unreasonable disparity in the way the market values one great artist..." fine, but I'm amazed at the ever increasing "disparity of wealth" which allows a few super-rich people to own the majority of the resourses whilst others lack the basic necessities.

    By the way I didn't mention Haiti (that was #2) – a country which you refer to as a "benighted " (dfn: lacking cultural, moral, or intellectual enlightenment; ignorant) !?

    I would be surprised if the majority of people can understand how someone having a spare £65m to invest in a work of art relates to the investment needed for creating the infrastructure necessary for less fortunate people to develop their own economies.

    As for the original question I would buy from 'live' artists who are trying to make a living and have the potential to contribute to art for the future.

  • Comment number 16.

    It's a wonderful sculpture.
    The old debate: what is a work of art worth?

    In total contrast to this fame and riches, I'm currently doing some research on a very interesting artist Patrick Swift (wiki or google) who promoted Giacometti in a magazine he founded in London called X (1959-62), where he also promoted Bacon, Freud etc. Swift was a fine painter and is still underatted- or rather unknown. He had an eversion to publicity and only held two solo exhibition during his career (there was an article on his first exhibition in Time magazine). You should have look at his work-very interesting.
    Also, anyone who can provide me with further information on Swift please get in touch.

  • Comment number 17.

    'The Struggle.' A sculpture in plaster for 'A' level which I saw when working as a student at the Associated Examining Board, around 30 years ago. A muscular man half-carrying, half-dragging his exhausted horse.

  • Comment number 18.

    But why didn't they go to Giacometti's dealer and buy one for less than 1/3 of the auction price? The only reason I can think of is that they were trying to bid up the value of their existing collection of Giacommetti works by setting a new benchmark price.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'd buy something by a real artist, like Lucian freud.

  • Comment number 20.

    Sacred and Profane Love by Titian

  • Comment number 21.

    At least the one in Pittsburgh was outside. In the 60's, it was owned by a man named Thompson, who had it sitting on his porch of his home on Brownsville Road. I remember it well. It is at least one of the reasons I sculpt today.

  • Comment number 22.

    I all ready own my master pieces. The illustrated books of Gustave Dore. He's illustrated everything, Paradise Lost, Divine Comedy, Shakespeare, Dickens the Bible. He's vision is utterly enthralling.

    My biggest question is why has fine art been elbowed out of the public domain in favour of modern art? Why can't they exist together?

  • Comment number 23.

    Any portrait painted by Giacometti. I love his paintings. He wanted to be known as a painter.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    What makes this piece work for me is the man with the blue mac and old briefcase. He reminds me a little bit of a player in a Tati film. If money wasn't any object I'd like to pay him to walk around it all day. Otherwise it doesn't stand up (no pun intended) as something I'd admire.

    But money is an object and I think I must be blessed with not having enough to worry about which one I want. Owning one, I think, would diminish it's potency as art, and that wouldn't make me happier. And there's the dusting.

    I don't have a problem with the amount paid. I mean, where do you draw the line - a million, half a million? However, I'm curious about all those phone bidders, have they actually seen the work? Nothing in those five tests suggests they would have.

  • Comment number 26.

    I would be interested to read a piece about a work of art whose value has decreased, for comparison. I was interested to read the views of Standard art critic Brian Sewell, who is unconvinced by Giacometti's relative merit - such a point impacts on the 'reputation' issue of course.

    For myself, I must say, I can't immediately think of a piece I'd like to own more in fantasyland than this one!

  • Comment number 27.

    What does the asking-price of something have to do with art? This article sounds like something from the FT. If this kind of stuff is so important to art, why hasn't the National Gallery installed digital "This would fetch £xxxxxx" totalisers as part of the descriptions of its paintings?
    Rich people buying and selling stuff; how exciting. Let's all squeeze our noses up against the plate glass. And as for "blue chip": how unaesthetic. How depressing.

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    If i had unlimited funds to buy an artwork?!

    Today it would be Turner's 'Snow Storm:Steamboat off a Harbour's mouth,
    ask me tomorrow and you would probably get another answer?!

  • Comment number 30.

    Well you all eat, drink and look like capitalists, don't you?!

    65million...chicken feed!

  • Comment number 31.

    With regards to a previous post of mine re an interesting artist, Patrick Swift, whom I am doing some research on, I have just come across a blog entry by John Latta -we must have come across the artist at about the same time- with extracts from Swift's essays in X magazine:
    For anyone interested:
    Images of Swifts work:
    Biographical info:
    And info on the magazine he founded in London in 1959, X, where he promoted figures such as Giacometti, Bacon, Freud etc:


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