The Return of the High-Priced Art Market?

— A sculpture by Alberto Giacometti last night became the most expensive work of art sold at auction as wealthy collectors battled for rare works by 20th-century artists at the biggest auction held in London, Sotheby's said.

The life-size bronze of a walking man, being sold by Germany-based Dresdner Bank AG, fetched 65 million pounds ($103.4 million) with fees. U.S.-based Sotheby's said that it used the HSBC midmarket exchange rate, giving a figure of $104.3 million, therefore just exceeding the $104.2 million for 1905 Pablo Picasso's "Garcon a la Pipe," which it sold in May 2004.

The statue, which fetched a record price for the artist, was one of three works in Sotheby's 39-lot auction of Impressionist and modern art that had estimates of more than 10 million pounds. The others were a Gustav Klimt painting that made 26.9 million pounds and a still life by Paul Cezanne that fetched 11.8 million pounds.

"It was a crazy price," Alex Lachmann, a Cologne-based art dealer, said after he watched the bronze sell for an artist- record. "You only need two people to push things high."

The estimates and prices indicated that buyers have renewed faith in auctions as a way of selling high-value art, said dealers. While auction prices for contemporary art dropped as much as 50 percent in the crisis, values of the most desirable classic modern works were still rising, they said. Sotheby's said the auction made a total of 146.8 million pounds, the most for a sale in the U.K. capital. The event had been expected to raise 69.1 million pounds to 102.1 million pounds.

Commerzbank Purchase

Giacometti's statue of an emaciated pedestrian, "L'Homme Qui Marche I" ("Walking Man I"), came from the collection of Dresdner, which was bought by Commerzbank AG in January 2009.

"Commerzbank has a big collection, we have a big collection," Martin Halusa, Dresdner's head of media relations, said in a telephone interview before the sale. "The Giacometti is one of a group of works being sold or donated to museums as part of the general reorganization of the company."

The bronze, originally conceived in 1960 and cast in an edition of six, was estimated to fetch 12 million pounds to 18 million pounds. This particular version of the sculpture, made in 1961, was the first example cast in the artist's lifetime offered at auction, said Sotheby's. The company's London-based senior specialist in Impressionist art, Philip Hook, would not divulge the nationality of the buyer, whom he represented.

At least three other telephone bidders and two individuals in the room contested the work. Its currency-converted price was put at $103.9 million by the Artnet database, just below the Picasso record from 2004.

'Greater Demand'

"Throughout 2009, we could see plenty of demand for works but not enough supply," said Hook in an interview. "This sale confirmed there is more supply and, if anything, demand is even greater."

Sellers will have been encouraged by the above-estimate $181.8 million achieved at Sotheby's November auction of Impressionist works in New York. Conde Nast chief S. I. Newhouse Jr. sold the Giacometti bronze "L'Homme Qui Chavire" (Falling Man) for $19.3 million, beating the $12 million high estimate and the $18.5 million paid for another version at Christie's International in May 2007, at the peak of the art-market boom.

"There was bidding from all over the world," said Melanie Clore, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe. A geographical breakdown of buyers wasn't available immediately after the sale.

Giacometti's sculptures and paintings, evoking postwar European existential angst, have crossover appeal to collectors of both modern and contemporary art, said dealers.

The reputation of the Italian-Swiss artist has been enhanced in recent years by exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Pompidou Center, Paris; and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel.

Grande Femme

The auction record for Giacometti was previously the $27.5 million paid for the slightly earlier bronze, "Grande Femme Debout II," at Christie's, New York, in May 2008.

Gustav Klimt's 1913 painting, "Church in Cassone — Landscape with Cypresses," sold for 26.9 million pounds. The winning bid was placed for a client represented by Clore. The painting beat an estimate of 12 million pounds to 18 million pounds, the same as the sculpture.

The landscape, painted while the Austrian artist was on holiday with his lover Emilie Floge near Lake Garda, Italy, came up for sale following a restitution agreement brokered by Sotheby's.

The agreement was made by Montreal-based Georges Jorisch, 81, a descendant of the Viennese collectors Paula and Viktor Zuckerkandl, who originally owned the picture. It was lost during World War II, and its current European owner remains anonymous.

Restituted Klimt

When Christie's sold works by Klimt restituted to the Bloch-Bauer family in November 2006, three landscapes sold for between $31 million and $40 million.

Cezanne's "Pichet et Fruits sur une Table," dating from 1893 to 1894, had an estimate of 10 million pounds to 15 million pounds and fetched 11.8 million pounds. It was bought on behalf of a client by Sotheby's chief executive officer Bill Ruprecht.

Executed on paper laid down on canvas, the Cezanne was being sold by a European collector who wasn't identified by the auction house. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, was among the painting's former owners, said Sotheby's.

The painting had last been seen on the auction market in May 2001 at Sotheby's, New York, where it failed to achieve a low estimate of $14 million. Twelve years earlier in May 1989, at the height of the Impressionist-art boom, the work sold in the same New York auction house for $11.6 million.

Cezanne Record

The record auction price for Cezanne is the $60.5 million paid for a similar still life from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney at Sotheby's, New York, in May 1999.

"A lot of Russians, Americans and Asian buyers are coming into the market," said Lachmann, who paid a double-estimate 3 million pounds for the German Expressionist canvas "Varieteparade" (Variety Show) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. "People understand the financial crisis was not the end of the world. For many wealthy people not much has changed. The money is there for good works with good provenances."

Other leading prices included the 4.9 million pounds paid by the London dealer Richard Nagy for a 1917 Egon Schiele drawing of a woman in violet stockings, and the 3.7 million pounds given by the London-based art agent Hector Paterson for Rene Magritte's 1942 surrealist oil, "Le Beau Navire," showing a female nude standing against a backdrop of a choppy sea. The Schiele carried a high estimate of 5 million pounds, the Magritte 3.5 million pounds.

Painted Plaster

Eight out the 39 works failed to sell, including a unique 1952 Giacometti painted plaster sculpture, "Petit Buste sur Colonne," estimated at 1.8 million pounds to 2.5 million pounds.

"Plaster has always been a problem for Giacometti collectors," said the London-based agent and dealer, James Roundell. "It was a beautiful thing, but it only needs one touch and then it's all over."

Sotheby's auction of 29 lots last February carried a low estimate of 40.6 million pounds. At the time, many owners preferred to sell privately rather than at auction and Sotheby's could muster no Impressionist or modern lots with an estimate of 10 million pounds or more. Still, one Degas bronze went on to sell for 13.3 million pounds.

Sotheby's shares rose 50 cents to $25.02 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, after rising as much as $1.47, or 6 percent. Commerzbank, Germany's second-biggest bank, earlier was at 5.86 euros.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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