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Christie's Giacometti sale stopped half way through and last 12 lots revoked

Once enough money to pay off the Giacometti Association's bills had been made, the sale was brought to the close, to the chagrin of foreign buyers

To the end, Christie’s sale of sculptures from the Giacometti Association was swathed in drama. After narrowly avoiding it being purely and simply annulled, Christie’s found an in extremis solution by “deChristie-ing” the whole session and holding it at Drouot. Even then the drama was not over: in the middle of a buoyant sale, as bids crackled from the room and 36 telephones, the auctioneer suddenly brought it to a halt, taking back the last 12 lots. “Fucking France”, shouted one disappointed American buyer as he and other furious collectors left the room.

What happened? The problems surrounding the Giacometti Association are long and complicated. This latest episode stems from the Association’s need to raise money to pay storage, insurance and other bills. The Association is run by a court-appointed administrator, Hélène Da Camara, and she obtained a court order to sell 36 posthumous casts to make the payment. Christie’s was to sell the group but shortly before the sale the French commissaires-priseurs brought out an injunction to prevent it. Under the reform of auctioneering, they had retained the monopoly of forced or judiciary sales, so argued that only they could hold it.

Christie’s found a last minute solution by transferring the sale to Drouot under the auspices of its vice-president François de Ricqlès, who is also a registered commissaire-priseur.

But in another last-minute twist, the Giacometti Association itself tried to block the sale, claiming that Mme Da Camara was “dilapidating” the Association and questioning her management.

This was thrown out, and the sale went ahead. Christie’s carefully eliminated its name, including rushing out a new catalogue to replace the previous glossy.

The sale itself was steaming merrily along, racking up excellent prices. The top lot, a version of “La cage”, was bought by the Swiss dealer Beyeler at a twice estimate €1.744 million (£1.08 million, $1.69 million), a portrait bust of a man fetched €1.057 million (£655,500; $1.025 million, also double estimate) (prices include the 9% government-imposed buyer’s premium). Then after selling a “Bust of Marie-Laure”, Christie’s lawyer whispered in the auctioneer’s ear and it was all over. The €6 million needed to cover the Association’s bills had been reached and the sale was stopped. With premium, €7,640,000, (£4,786,460, $7,441,360) had been raised.

While the French were not surprised, as court-ordered sales do end once the required sum has been raised, the same could not be said for the many foreign buyers in the room, who were furious.

In a final comic twist, Christie’s (still anxious not to be connected with the sale) then sent the results out to the world using a palm pilot and M. de Ricqlès’ email rather than its own!

The high drama apart, the session again demonstrated France’s difficulties in shrugging off its old corporatist attitudes. However it was a case of “all’s well that ends well”, as the sale did go ahead, the Giacometti Association got the money it needed and got back some of the sculptures that it had consigned.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Giacometti, halt!'