Gustav Klimt's "Church in Cassone (Landscape with Cypresses)"

Gustav Klimts "Church in Cassone" (Landscape with Cypresses) is conservatively sold for $43 million in the February 3rd Sothebys auction. Photograph: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Klimt and Giacometti Hit New Records

Trophies in demand will always sell, but does it mean the art market is back? At Sothebys in London this week, a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, “Walking Man,” sold for $104.3 million, the highest price paid for a work of art at auction. Also, a landscape by Gustav Klimt, “Church in Cassone,” brought $43.2 million, a record price for a Klimt landscape.

Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man 1, 1960

Alberto Giacometti, "Walking Man 1", 1960

Before you conclude that the economy has been revived, bear in mind that these are only two works of art, with big names attached. The fact that they brought such high prices indicates that at least two people were interested in each of them.  In the old mantra of the auction business, the best things will always sell. It might be better stated that trophies in demand will always sell, and they did.

The Giacometti was a special object, although what made it special may not have been what led a reported ten bidders (including Russian and ex-Soviet oligarchs – who else has that kind of cash?) to drive the price up. “Walking Man” was part of the commission given to Giacometti in 1956 to design sculptures for the sunken garden of One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the bank headquarters in lower Manhattan. After the shelving of that project, assigned by the architect Gordon Bunshaft for the Rockefeller family, the artist destroyed most of what hed made for the site. The “Walking Man” went to the Sidney Janis Gallery and then was sold to Dresdner Bank, which sold it this week.  Another case of a bank profiting these days, although most banks wouldnt want toe embarrassment of a logo depicting a starving survivor of a cataclysm.  (The garden at Chase Manhattan Plaza was then designed by Isamu Noguchi, whose silent rocks are still there.)

If the Giacometti “Walking Man” can be viewed as an emaciated survivor walking away from tragedy (an obvious, but not the only interpretation) then Klimts Church at Cassone is the loot that was carried away during that same time. The Klimt landscape had belonged to the Zuckerkandl family, most of whom were shipped from their homes in Vienna to perish in the Nazi death camps.

Church in Cassone, painted in 1913, disappeared during the war, and resurfaced in Austria in 1962, Klimts centenary. Georges Jorisch, grand-nephew of the steel magnate and collector Viktor Zuckerkandl, didnt claim the picture then, but waited until the last decade to begin efforts to recover the work from the private collector who put it on view in 1962.

The deal between Jorisch and the collector (and Sothebys) reportedly involved a split of the proceeds from the painting – an arrangement that usually reflects the assumption that the former owner of a painting or his heirs and the current possessor are “two innocent parties.”   Its a term that is also employed to convince the holders of looted art to part with it, usually selling it at auction.  Sothebys sold  $90 million of restituted Nazi Era loot last year, suggesting that theres nothing like a Nazi in the provenance to drive up the price.

“Todays sale closes a long-open chapter in my life in which I recover a part of my forbears legacy and pass it on to future generations, just as my parents would have wished,” Jorisch, who spent the Occupation in hiding in Belgium and has lived in Montreal since the end of the war,  was quoted as saying in a Sothebys press release after the sale.

Top photo: Gustav Klimts Church in Cassone (Landscape with Cypresses). Photograph: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

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