15-05-18-2192NE01A Giacometti christies.jpg
Alberto Giacometti’s ‘L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man)’ that took $126m (£85.1m) at Christie’s New York and set a record for any sculpture at auction. The bronze from 1947-51 was from an edition of six and was the only painted version still in private hands. It was knocked down to an anonymous phone bidder.

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The figure achieved collectively by Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips was already above the record for an auction fortnight, outscoring the $2.21bn (£1.44bn) posted by November's series in the Big Apple.

The sales included the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction as Pablo Picasso's Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') sold at $160m (£108.1m) at Christie's on May 11. The work was offered in a newly launched evening sale of 20th century art entitled 'Looking Forward to the Past' which also posted the highest auction price for any sculpture as Alberto Giacometti's L'homme au doigt (Pointing Man) took $126m (£85.1m).

In a night that demonstrated the increased spending power of buyers at the very top of the market, the 35-lot sale generated a premium-inclusive $705.85m (£455.4m), making it the second most lucrative auction ever - the record is still held by Christie's Contemporary art sale in New York last November that posted $852.9m (£557.4m) from 80 lots.

Guarantee Competition

The New York auctions represented a new chapter in the rivalry between Sotheby's and Christie's as both firms entered this crucial fortnight with new chief executives at the helm - Tad Smith at Sotheby's and Patricia Barbizet at Christie's.

Predictions that both will take a less aggressive approach to winning consignments came too early for these sales. There was certainly no let up in the amount of guarantees arranged by the auctioneers with Christie's gaining the lion's share of the stellar lots.

Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') was one of 19 lots at the 'Looking Forward to the Past' sale that had a minimum price guaranteed either by Christie's or third parties. Two nights later at their Contemporary art evening sale, 50 of the 82 lots were guaranteed meaning in total at least $600m worth of art was underwritten across the two top auctions of the fortnight.

Christie's also decided to make a decisive shift in the calendar this year, staging all their events in the second week rather than following the usual practice of back-to-back Impressionist & Modern art sales followed by the Contemporary art auctions.

The 'Looking Forward to the Past' sale broke with tradition by offering a mixture of works from the two categories, a tactic deliberately aimed at buyers with interest in both sectors. A side effect of these changes was that it made direct comparisons in the Imps & Mods sector more difficult (an area in which Sotheby's have established a lead in the last two years), although the record Picasso and Giacometti bumped up Christie's figures in this area significantly.

Following Christie's $658.5m (£445m) Contemporary art sale, Brett Gorvy, Christie's global head of post-war and contemporary art, said that buyers in this market "were willing to stretch and stretch some more to have the best".

Christie's Lead

Overall, Christie's established a clear lead over their rivals and were able to trumpet the fact that they had staged the world's first billion-dollar art week - their total was $1.68bn with two Impressionist and Modern art day sales still to come.

Sotheby's overall total for the fortnight was $892.5m (£603m).

In other developments:

• Three of the top five lots at Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale on May 5 were sold to Asian private collectors including Vincent van Gogh's (1853-1890) L'Allée des Alyscamps which led the auction at $59m (£39.9m).

• Sotheby's and Christie's Contemporary art sales were both led by abstract works by Mark Rothko. Sotheby's evening sale on May 12 offered Untitled (Yellow and Blue) from 1954 which sold to a phone bidder at $41.25m (£27.8m) and was underbid by an Asian collector. This sum was eclipsed at Christie's the following night as Rothko's No. 10 from 1958 was knocked down at $73m (£49.3m) to an anonymous buyer.

•  A record came for Lucian Freud (1922-2011) when Benefits Supervisor Resting sold for a top-estimate $50m (£33.8m) at Christie's. It was knocked down in the room to London dealer Pilar Ordovas bidding for a client. It exceeded the $30m (£16.1m) paid for another nude of the subject, Freud's model Sue Tilley, which sold at Christie's New York in 2008.

•  Across the sales, numerous records came for individual artists including at Christie's for Piet Mondrian ($45m/£30.4m), Chaim Soutine ($25m/£16.9m), Peter Doig ($23m/£15.5m) and Robert Rauschenberg ($16.5m/£11.1m); and at Sotheby's for Christopher Woll ($26.5m/£17.9m) and Sigmar Polke ($24m/£16.2m).

•  Philips Contemporary art evening sale generated a premium-inclusive total of $97.2m (£65.7m) with 56 of the 70 lots selling.

Twitter Reaction

Inevitably the biggest spotlight of the fortnight fell on Picasso's 1955 Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O'). The $160m (£108.1m) sum surpassed the previous record for any item at auction and here is a selection of tweets showing the global reaction:

 

Waldemar Januszczak @Januszczak

Art lovers, I love Picasso but this is insanity.

 

Josh Spero @joshspero

Without Quantative Easing, that Picasso would never have made $160m. There's so much money about, it has to go somewhere.

 

Melanie Gerlis @mgerlis

If I had a pound for everyone who'd asked me who bought the Picasso, I still wouldn't be anywhere near being able to buy the Picasso.

 

John Johnsonson @JohnJohnsonson

Unbelievable that someone paid $160m for a Picasso when for that money you could take a family of four to the movies including popcorn.

 

And this one came during the later bidding for the Giacometti:

Peter Greenway @Peter_Greenway

New bidder at $126m, I say that all the time @RoseberysLtd