Picasso oil painting sets world auction record of $239m

Employees of Christie's auction house holding up Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) during a press preview in London on April 10, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Employees of Christie's auction house holding up Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) during a press preview in London on April 10, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - A Picasso masterpiece and a Giacometti statue smashed world records Monday for the most expensive art sold at auction, fetching more than US$179 million (S$239 million)  and US$141 million (S$188 million) respectively in New York.

Pablo Picasso oil painting, “The Women of Algiers (Version 0),” sold for US$179,365,000 after 11 and a half minutes of furious bidding from four to five prospective buyers at Christie’s, where two auction rooms were packed.

It was the highest price for any work of art sold at auction, Christie’s said, but fell short of the US$300 million reportedly paid privately by Qatar for Paul Gauguin’s painting “When Will You Marry?” in February.

Applause erupted when auctioneer and global president of Christie’s Jussi Pylkkanen finalised the Picasso sale having cut through the frenzied excitement of the bidding war with laughter and jokes.

Just minutes later, the bronze statue by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti “Man Pointing” broke the record for the most expensive sculpture sold at auction, fetching US$141.285 million.

Other world auction records were set for works by artists Cady Noland, Jean Dubuffet, Diane Arbus, Chaim Soutine and Peter Doig, Christie’s said.

The auction house listed the buyers as anonymous but said clients from Asia, the Gulf, Russia, Europe and the United States had competed for the top 10 lots of the sale.

Overall, bidders came from 35 different countries, it said. Exponential growth in the art market, particularly for modern and contemporary works, is attributed to a growing number of private investors around the world and burgeoning interest in Asia and the Gulf.

The previous world record for an artwork sold at auction was US$142.4 million, set for British painter Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which was sold by Christie’s in New York in 2013.

Giacometti had also held the previous record for the most expensive sculpture sold at auction, formerly occupied by his “Walking Man I” that fetched US$104.3 million in London in 2010.

‘Extraordinary’ number of new buyers'

“Buyers are coming to Christie’s from all over the globe and tonight we saw a huge amount of competition against American bidding from European buyers and also from Asian buyers,” Pylkkanen told reporters.

“The number of buyers competing at the very, very highest levels who have only been in market for last five to six years was extraordinary.”

The Picasso and Giacometti both soared over their pre-sale estimates of US$140 million and US$130 million respectively.

The 1955 painting by Picasso is one of the last major paintings by the Spanish master still in private hands. He painted several versions until he settled on the nearly 1.2-by-1.5-metre canvas.

There are only six casts in the world of “Man Pointing,” a wiry, nearly 1.8-metre man holding up one hand and pointing with the other. One is at the Tate in London and another in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Christie’s sold more than US$705 million worth of art at its 35-lot auction of masterpieces spanning more than a century from 1902 to 2011, and scored at its swanky New York premises at Rockefeller Plaza.

The third top lot was another Picasso oil painting, “Buste de femme,” which sold for US$67.365 million.

In joint fourth place was a painting from Claude Monet’s “The House of Parliament” series and Mark Rothko’s 1958 “No 36, Black Stripe,” which both fetched US$40.485 million.

The proceeds from public art auctions rose 26 per cent from US$12.05 billion in 2013 to US$15.2 billion in 2014, and grew 422 per cent between 2000 and 2014, according to Artprice, a leader in art market information. “This will be the sale of the century,” Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann told AFP earlier of the Christie’s evening auction.

New York’s spring auction season began last week at Sotheby’s, which sold a Vincent van Gogh painting for more than US$66 million to an Asian collector. Sales continue until Thursday.