A major highlight of Christie's upcoming spring auction in New York will be Alberto Giacometti's most iconic and evocative sculpture, L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man). The piece is estimated to bring about $130 million, which would be the highest price ever paid at auction for a sculpture, according to the auction house.
Cast in bronze and standing whippet-thin at five feet ten inches, this dynamic and powerful figure is widely recognized as one of the most important sculptural achievements of the Modern era, created by the greatest master of the medium. It has never before been offered at auction. The sculpture will be featured in Christie’s May 11 sale, Looking Forward to the Past.
Instantly recognizable and awe-inspiring to view in person, Pointing Man is among the great masterpieces in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Gallery. Giacometti conceived the work in 1947 and made just six casts of it plus one artist’s proof. Today, four are in major museums; the remaining are in foundation collections and private hands. The extreme rarity of the work is underscored by the fact that the cast to be offered at Christie’s is believed to be the only bronze version of Pointing Man that Giacometti painted by hand in order to heighten its expressive impact, making this a singular opportunity for the world’s top collectors to view and compete for this exceptional work.
“Pointing Man is unquestionably Giacometti's greatest sculpture. Executed after the War in one incredible night of creative fervour, this noble figure points mankind towards a brighter future beyond our limited horizons. The curators of the Tate Gallery moved quickly to acquire a work from this edition in 1949, and the Baltimore Museum of Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art were delighted to receive examples by bequest from the arts patrons Saidie May and Blanchette Rockefeller soon after. This example stands apart from all others because it is unique -- it was hand-painted by the artist himself,” commented Jussi Pylkkanen, Global President, Christie’s. “It is quite simply one of the finest works of art I have had the honour to handle in my long career at Christie’s. The auction event on May 11 promises to be an extraordinary night for the global art market.”
Christie’s previously announced that Pablo Picasso’s 1955 masterpiece Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), the artist’s tour-de-force homage to the great 19th century master Eugène Delacroix, will headline ‘Looking Forward to the Past’, a special Evening Sale comprised of a mix of important works from the Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary periods. The painting is estimated in the region of $140 million, making it a contender for the most valuable painting ever offered at auction.
By Giacometti’s own account, he created L’homme au doigt in a single phenomenal night in October 1947. His first solo exhibition in nearly 15 years was due to open at Pierre Matisse’s gallery in New York the following January, and time was running short. He was nearing the end of a year of extraordinary productivity, in which he had begun to grow his diminutive “pin people” into life-size figures exhibiting his famously attenuated, wraith-like style. On this particular night, his looming deadline spurred the sculptor to new heights of creativity and daring, reaching a crescendo in the early hours when his prototype was completed. “I did that piece in one night between midnight and nine the next morning,” Giacometti told his biographer James Lord. “That is, I’d already done it, but I demolished it and did it all over again because the men from the foundry were coming to take it away. And when they got here, the plaster was still wet”.
When his solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery opened in January 1948 in New York, L’homme au doigt was front and center – part of a trio of life-sized figures that formed the focal point of the show, which also included his celebrated figures Walking Man and one of his Standing Women. The exhibition was an instant sensation, introducing his radically innovative style and body of work to New York’s post-war art scene.
Pointing Man stands with superb self-assurance, dominating the space around him and with his head held high. His body turns slightly toward his right, following the direction he points towards with a rigid, stick-thin arm. The gesture evokes the classic oratory pose of the Roman emperor Augustus or Rodin’s Saint John the Baptist. His left arm is also raised behind him, as if beckoning others forward to join him or perhaps to embrace a companion next to him. Giacometti later reported that he had initially started to compose two figures to stand side by side, but afterL’homme au doigt was completed “it was entirely impossible for me to make the second and I didn’t even begin it.” He revisited the idea four years later in 1951, creating a plaster figure to accompany Pointing Man. But it was not to last; after exhibiting it once Giacometti destroyed the plaster figure without making any bronzes of it and abandoned the idea for good. “Pointing Man will remain on its own,” he declared.
Like all of Giacometti’s signature post-war sculptures, L’homme au doigt’s surface is feverishly worked, so that the rippling bronze flesh appears tormented and even scarred in places. But where the faces of his Walking Men and Standing Women seem anonymous, without resemblance to any particular person, many have observed that the face of Pointing Man, with its craggy features and shock of hair on top, looks much like the artist himself. In the version to be offered for sale this spring, Giacometti’s decision to hand-paint flesh tones on the elongated body and black pigment on the hair and one eye lend the towering figure a uniquely riveting presence, and serves to heighten the eerie sense of resemblance.
This cast of L’homme au doigt comes to market with a distinctly American provenance, having been purchased direct from Pierre Matisse in 1953. Its original owners were the celebrated collectors Dr. Fred and Florence Olsen, whose wide-ranging interests extended from Chinese and pre-Columbian art and objects to Abstract Expressionism. The Olsens were also the first owners of Jackson Pollock’s famous masterpiece Blue Poles (1952), and the two great modernist works shared pride of place in the couple’s custom-built Connecticut home, still known as The Olsen House, which they commissioned from the architect, painter, and sculptor Tony Smith. By 1970, the work passed into the collection of the current owner, a distinguished private collector who has kept it for the last 45 years.
Giacometti remains the only sculptor whose work has surpassed the $100 million mark at auction. In the last five years alone, four Giacometti bronzes have sold for more than $50 million, includingWalking Man, which holds the current record for any work by the artist at $103.9 million, andGrand Tête Mince, from the legendary Brody Collection, which soared above its pre-sale estimate of $25-35 million to achieve $53.2 million at Christie’s New York.