NEW YORK • A statue of Hitler on his knees was auctioned on Sunday for US$17.2 million (S$23.4 million), a record for a work by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.
The wax and resin statue, titled simply Him, exceeded the high presale estimate of US$15 million at Christie's. The previous record for a work by the 55-year-old artist was US$7.9 million.
The sale came during the first of five spring evening auctions which at first seemed reckless, filling a catalogue with challenging, even disturbing works, such as the Hitler statue and a wooden grid of potatoes - a far cry from auction staples.
But the auction, called Bound To Fail, was seen as a test of the market. Experts said it dared true collectors to step up and prove their tastes ran deeper than just auction darlings.
The stakes are high: After five years of growth, the global art market is slowing down. Sunday's sales of contemporary art at Christie's and Phillips offered 76 lots that tallied US$124.7 million. That was less than the US$141.3 million that a lone Alberto Giacometti sculpture fetched a year ago.
Christie's 39-lot sale raised US$78.1 million, within its target range, but nine times less than its themed sale in May last year. Only one work failed to sell (the potatoes by Sigmar Polke).
A notorious work, the child-size Him was completed in 2001. It stoked outrage when it was placed at the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto in 2012.
"I wanted to destroy it myself," Cattelan once said of the work.
"I changed my mind a thousand times every day. Hitler is pure fear. It even hurts to pronounce his name. And yet that name has conquered my memory. It lives in my head, even if it remains taboo."
The sale was well-timed because of Cattelan's recent re-emergence from retirement, with a sculpture of a solid-gold toilet announced - but delayed - at the Guggenheim Museum.
Mr Loic Gouzer, deputy chairman of post-war and contemporary art with Christie's, called the work "extremely powerful, extremely disconcerting".
Unlike in the movies, he said, "artists have hardly touched on the issue of Hitler". Even some years ago, the statue would have been tough to sell, but now the market seems ready, he added.
American artist Jeff Koons' One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank - a water-filled basketball suspended in a tank of saline solution that was estimated at US$12 million - went for US$15.3 million with fees.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES