A work by Alberto Giacometti, the artist behind some of history’s most expensive sculptures, is going up for sale – but bids will be made entirely in secret.
Until October 27, auction house Sotheby’s will be accepting confidential offers for “Grande femme I,” a 9-foot-tall bronze of a spindly woman. And with a starting price of $90 million, the so-called “sealed-bid” sale could fetch one of the largest sums ever paid for a sculpture.
The Swiss artist cast the bronze artwork in 1960, six years before his death. It was part of a larger series of sculptures meant to form a major public installation in New York City, though the outdoor display was never realized. “Grande femme I” embodies Giacometti’s late-career style, which he developed after World War II: elongated, textured figures that appear fragile, but heavy with psychological implications.
Sotheby’s said that its general counsel will review the bids alongside an outside auditor the day after bidding closes. The bidder making the highest offer will claim the sculpture, though the buyer’s identity and the final sale price will not be revealed by the auction house.
“The hybrid format of this sale provides the opportunity to promote a rare masterpiece with worldwide appeal, but retain the discretion of a private sale, which is especially important to clients when buying at this value point,” said Brooke Lampley, vice chairman of Sotheby’s global fine art division, over email.
Sealed-bid sales are relatively unusual in the art market, though Sotheby’s used a similar format to offer a selection of contemporary artworks and jewelry items in what was described as a “silent auction” in Hong Kong in May.
Giacometti made headlines in 2015 when his famed 1947 work “L’homme au doigt” became the most expensive sculpture ever to sell at auction, fetching $141.3 million at Christie’s in New York. He remains the only sculptor whose work is known to have sold for over $100 million, with an edition of “L’Homme qui marche I” fetching $104.3 million in 2010 and his artwork “Chariot” selling for nearly $101 million in 2014.
The next sculpture to have come closest to the $100 million mark is Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit,” which raked in $91.1 million in 2019 to become the most expensive work by a living artist.
Public art made private
Although now up for private sale, “Grande femme I” was originally intended to be a public work of art that passersby could experience up close. It was commissioned by architect Gordon Bunshaft in 1956 as part of a group of monumental works meant to occupy the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York’s Financial District. The sculptor envisioned the space would be occupied by a walking man, a standing woman and a head on a pedestal, forms he often repeated in his work.
Giacometti began casting the bronzes in 1960, in the last decade of his life. During that period, he exclusively created the emaciated, striking figures he became known for, following an earlier stint as a member of the Surrealists alongside artists like Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst.
After World War II, the artist “was not interested anymore in working with fantasy,” the artistic director of the Giacometti Institute in Paris, Christian Alandete, told CNN earlier this year. “He wanted to… work from reality. He was a solitary artist in the sense that he really had his own vision of what sculpture should be.”
Ultimately, the Manhattan installation was never completed because Giacometti became unhappy with the site – even though he had never visited New York, according to Sotheby’s. (Later, in 1965, he saw the plaza in person and proposed installing a set of 25-foot-tall sculptures though he died the following year.)
Before Giacometti scrapped the project, he had already cast the head, two variations of the male forms and four of the standing female figures – each of which were sold separately. “Grande femme I” was last sold in 1989 at Christie’s in New York (for $4.9 million, according to the The Art Newspaper), while “Grande femme II” fetched nearly 24.9 million euros ($29.5 million) at Christie’s in 2017.
“Giacometti’s work continues to resonate with collectors and the general public, and command such consistently high prices in the market, because his themes … are universally understood, and his artistic style is distinctive and readily identifiable,” Lampley said. “Giacometti introduced a completely new visual vernacular for sculpting the human form that influenced both his contemporaries and successive generations of artists.”
“Grande femme I” will be on view by appointment at Sotheby’s New York galleries through October 27.