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Is Sotheby’s $104.32-Million Giacometti the “Most Expensive Art Work Ever Sold at Auction”?

The $104.3-million man: Giacometti, “L’Homme Qui Marche I,” 1960 (cast in 1961)

If you’re looking for a symbol of a more robust art market, this emaciated six-footer could be it.

At today’s Impressionist/modern auction at Sotheby’s London, Giacometti‘s “L’Homme Qui Marche I,” estimated to bring a “mere” £12-18 million ($19.33-28.99 million) sold for what the auction house said was a record auction price for any artwork—a staggering £65 million ($104.3 million).

But was it really a record? After a few calculations, I think the answer is yes.

I hesitated to cut and paste onto my blog Sotheby’s exultant announcement, which I received many hours ago, because the total, which includes buyer’s premium, was so close to the price for the previous champion, Picasso‘s “Garçon à la Pipe,” 1905, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $104,168,000 in May 2004, when the buyer’s premium tacked onto the hammer price was lower than it is today. Was this merely a “buyer’s premium record” or perhaps a “foreign exchange record”?

Turns out that the Giacometti’s hammer price, as reported by Sotheby’s was $93.09 million, compared to the $93-million hammer price for the Picasso—still (narrowly) a new record, even without figuring in this year’s larger buyer’s premium. The dollar is stronger against the pound now than it was in 2004, so I don’t believe that conversion rates were a factor in making the London-sold Giacometti a record in dollars, as Scott Reyburn of Bloomberg seems to suggest.

Carol Vogel of the NY Times reported the Giacometti’s hammer price in dollars as $92.5 million, less than what Sotheby’s reported and also less than the Picasso’s hammer price. Sotheby’s used a conversion rate of 1.605, by which it multiplied the £58 million hammer price to arrive at today’s $93.09 hammer price in dollars. Other sources quote a lower exchange rate for today, which would lower the dollar price. (You can see why my head is starting to spin. It would have been so much easier if both records has been achieved in the same currency.)

No matter how many hairs you split, though, the Giacometti does seem to have eked out a new auction record. Record or no, this monster price should give the art market a confidence boost. That said, prices and volume have dropped a long way and won’t recover to former levels tomorrow. The Giacometti was an anomaly, not a definitive bellwether.

Sotheby’s sale today totaled £146.8 million, compared to yesterday’s Christie’s London Impressionist/modern sale total of £76.83 million. The top lot at Christie’s was yet another late Picasso, “Tête de Femme (Jacqueline),” 1963, £8.1 million (with buyer’s premium), continuing the new vogue started by the Gagosian Gallery”s breakout Mosqueteros show.

an ArtsJournal blog