Newspapers and art journals have been screaming. "Alberto Giacometti Sculpture Breaks Auction Record", A Touch of Fame Works its Magic in the Market", "Giacometti: The plot thickens over spending man", "Giacometti Auction: Sotheby's Business Model Wins Again" and "Sotheby's Historic Sale". Of course these headlines are all referring to the the sale of L'Homme Qui Marche I" (Walking Man I), which sold on February 3, 2010 for a record breaking $65 million pounds. But what does such a sale mean for the art market and why did it happen now.
All of the hubbub surrounding the sale is great PR for Sotheby's and for the art market in general. But who would pay such a high price for the sculpture and why now? It is true that in the last five years Giacometti prices have been rising. It is also true that in the last year record prices have been set for sculptures by the artists Rodin, Brancusi and Degas. Perhaps one can conclude that a group of wealthy buyers are playing the "my sculpture is bigger than your sculpture" game. Certainly part of paying such an exorbitant sum is creating a stir and stroking the ego of the wealthy collector. After all, money not only buys taste in the art world, it often creates it.
But another, more complicated and compelling answer may be the real one and it goes back to the auction house PR machine. In order to generate buzz and create a sale, auction houses often begin calling around to their short list of wealthy and willing buyers. In his article Bait and Switch Charlie Finch, a writer with artnet magazine sums it up this way, "The game is simple: when museum holdings of great value cannot be sold, buyers at auction are not compelled to be identified and auction houses have willing arts journalists ready to sell the sucker public on another astounding record, which could easily have been pre-arranged to goose the market and provide a nice dividend to the auction firms, true value and the discerning eye which drives it cease to exist."
So this begs the question, is the art market actually rebounding? The simple answer is 'yes'. However, the more complicated and realistic answer is 'sort-of'. If you ask around at art galleries and smaller auction houses they will likely tell you that their overall sales have gone up a little or stayed exactly the same. Since the majority of items sold in any given year are not over the $1 million mark the real market is still in flux-a fact not surprising given the continuing state of our economy.