Top price, restitution sale mark London auction

CTV News 4 February 2010

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Auction house employees hold a still life painting by Paul Cezanne, behind the only life-time cast of 'The Walking Man' by Alberto Giacometti, right, during a photo call in central London, Tuesday Jan. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

An auction of impressionist and modern art in London has set a record sale price for a single work of art and has captured top-dollar for a painting that was stolen from the relatives of a Montreal man in the Second World War.

Wednesday's Sotheby's sale made headlines after an Alberto Giacometti sculpture sold for $104.3 million, topping the sale of a Pablo Picasso work that sold for more than $100 million four years ago.

The Giacometti work -- a bronze sculpture entitled "L'Homme Qui Marche I" (Walking Man I) -- was purchased by an anonymous telephone bidder, the auction house said.

The bidding lasted about eight minutes, while onlookers watched the price skyrocket.

"We suspected that this sculpture would go for a lot of money, but the price just kept going up and up and up, it was quite astonishing," CTV's London Bureau Chief, Tom Kennedy, told CTV's Canada AM.

"At one point people were laughing as the price continued to climb, then there was silent astonishment and then there was applause when the final price was announced."

Helena Newman, a specialist of impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's, called the blockbuster winning bid "a phenomenal result."

"I think the result pretty much reflects the depth of the market," Newman told the BBC.

The last time a similarly-sized Giacometti sculpture sold at auction was 20 years ago. Back then, that sculpture sold for $6.82 million.

"There are people interpreting this now, saying that the recession as it affects work of modern art is officially over," said Kennedy.

All-in-all, the auction saw 39 works of art sold off for some $250 million, Kennedy said.

Canadian connection

Among the works that were sold in London was a painting by Austrian impressionist Gustav Klimt -- a sale that paid restitution to a Montreal man who was only a child when the painting was stolen from his relatives.

Klimt's "Church in Cassone -- Landscape with Cypresses" had been valued at between US$19 million and $29 million, prior to auction. It sold for $45.4 million.

The painting had originally been purchased in 1914 directly from the artist in Vienna, by Viktor and Paula Zuckerkandl.

It was later inherited by Viktor Zuckerkandl's sister, Amalie Redlich, who put it into storage after the Nazi invasion of Austria.

Redlich was deported to the Polish city of Lodz during the war and never heard from again. When her son-in-law went to claim the painting after the war, it was gone.

Kennedy said it is believed that millions of works of art were looted from Europe during the war.

"Many of the millions were brought back to their original owners after the war, but millions still were lost. There's a whole process of restitution that has been going on for decades actually," Kennedy said.

The painting reappeared in the 1960s, and was later identified as a stolen work.

When the Klimt painting hit the auction block on Wednesday, the sale proceeds were to be divided between the current owner and Redlich's 81-year-old grandson, Georges Jorisch of Montreal.

"The present owner -- or the owner who sold it last night -- we believe came across this painting inadvertently, acquired it after the war not realizing it has been stolen," Kennedy said.

"So finally restitution was made last night, an astonishing amount of money that will be divided equally."

Kennedy said the ground rules for paying restitution for looted Second World War art works were laid out at a conference in Washington in 1998.

"What happened after those rules were set in 1998, there are many relatives of families who lost art works who are now looking for those looted art works. They are finding them and they are coming to very often amicable agreements with the new owners to sell the paintings and to make restitution," he said.

With files from The Associated Press
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