The Public Beginnings of a Privately-Sold Giacometti

James Ardis
Published on
Grande femme I on display. Photo from Sotheby’s.
Grande femme I on display. Photo from Sotheby’s.

On Tuesday, bidding closed on Grande femme I, an Alberto Giacometti sculpture offered by Sotheby’s. The starting bid was USD 90 million. Beyond that, any information about who purchased the sculpture and for how much will stay confidential. Sotheby’s vice chairman, Brooke Lampley, believes this private, sealed-bid format will provide the confidentiality needed for someone bidding on a work of such importance.

Sealed bids are uncommon for the auction industry. However, as CNN mentions, it is not without precedent. This May, Sotheby’s hosted a similar sale in Hong Kong.

The format serves as an interesting contrast to Giacometti’s once-held plans to make Grande femme I and several other sculptures very much public. Over the years, the work has also passed hands between some of the most well-known art collectors and dealers.

What were Giacometti’s original intentions for this sculpture? And who has owned it over the decades? Auction Daily takes an in-depth look at the 60-year history of Grande femme I.

Manhattan, New York, Late 1950s

Chase Manhattan Bank plaza in the 1960s. Photo from Sotheby’s.
Chase Manhattan Bank plaza in the 1960s. Photo from Sotheby’s.

Alberto Giacometti had never visited New York City. But for a couple of years in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the city’s Chase Manhattan Bank plaza was set to be a testament to the artist’s career. Giacometti was commissioned to beautify this part of the city’s financial district. 

For the project, he planned to continue some of his most iconic motifs. That included slender sculptures of a man and a woman, as well as a giant head. “[S]pectators encountering the Chase Manhattan Bank plaza would have entered this wonderful world, where trees were women and stones were heads,” says Guggenheim curator Megan Fontanella.

Alberto Giacometti with the Grande Femme IV in the Courtyard of His Studio by Annette Giacometti. Courtesy of Yuz Museum, Shanghai.
Alberto Giacometti with the Grande Femme IV in the Courtyard of His Studio by Annette Giacometti. Courtesy of Yuz Museum, Shanghai.

Thousands of miles away from New York, Giacometti worked to produce the sculptures but never felt satisfied with the result. After creating one head, two male figures, and four female figures (including Grande femme I), he called off the project.

One year before Giacometti’s death, the artist finally visited New York City and the site where his pieces would have stood. Reinspired, he began discussions on new sculptures for the plaza, but he did not live long enough to see it through.

Robert B. Mayer, 1961

The casts Giacometti originally intended for the Manhattan plaza found their way to museums around the world. Among the institutions that hold these sculptures are the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Around the same time, Grande femme I would begin its decades-long journey in the art market. Chicago art collector Robert B. Mayer acquired it from Paris’ Galerie Maeght in 1961.

Mayer was one of the founders of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His personal collection of art began on a strong note in 1937, when he purchased a Diego Rivera directly from the artist in Mexico City.

Grande femme I by Alberto Giacometti. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand for Getty Images.
Grande femme I by Alberto Giacometti. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand for Getty Images.

15 years after Mayer’s passing, in 1989, his wife began downsizing the collection. 64 pieces from the estate came to auction that year with Christie’s, among them being Giacometti’s Grande femme I

The New York Times highlighted the sculpture as the event’s top lot, calling it “a soaring, sparely wrought bronze.” The piece had a pre-sale estimate of $4 million to $6 million, and it landed in the middle at $4.9 million ($10.3 million, when adjusted for inflation).

Jeffrey Loria, 1990s 

Jeffrey Loria earned his wealth as an art dealer. He would later add to it as the owner of the Montreal Expos baseball team (now the Washington Nationals) and, afterward, the Miami Marlins.

In both industries, Loria earned a reputation for being unapologetically focused on the bottom line. “As an art dealer, Mr. Loria… is known as a cagey, some say ruthless, negotiator with an eye for the good stuff,” wrote William Berlind for The Observer in 1999.

The New York art dealer purchased Grande femme I in the early 1990s, after the 1989 Christie’s auction. At the time, Loria was working as the owner of the Oklahoma City 89ers, a minor league baseball team, alongside actor Bill Murray and others. It was baseball fans’ introduction to Loria’s assertive style.

Loria’s ownership of Grande femme I would be brief. He sold it in 1993 to Ron Perelman, the owner of Revlon Inc. Loria transitioned more towards baseball, where he would continue to polarize fans.

Portrait of Diego by Alberto Giacometti. Photo by the Giacometti Foundation.
Portrait of Diego by Alberto Giacometti. Photo by the Giacometti Foundation.

In 2013, Giacometti once again appeared alongside Loria in headlines. That year, Yahoo! and other sources reported that a single Giacometti portrait Loria sold could have almost financed the entire Miami Marlins baseball team. The discovery once again raised accusations that Loria could have invested more in his teams.

Ron Perelman, 2020

Bloomberg reported that Grande femme I entered Sotheby’s sealed-bid sale this week directly from the collection of Ron Perelman. The Revlon owner already reached an agreement earlier this summer to sell numerous pieces from his collection. That includes works by Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, and Jeff Koons.

Like many others, Perelman is making substantial changes to his holdings in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “I have been very public about my intention to reduce leverage, streamline operations, sell some assets and convert those assets to cash in order to seek new investment opportunities,” Perelman told Bloomberg.

Christie’s auction offering Giacometti’s L'homme au doigt. Photo by Timothy A. Clary for Getty Images.
Christie’s auction offering Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt. Photo by Timothy A. Clary for Getty Images.

Alberto Giacometti’s Grande femme I has spent over half a century dipping in and out of the public’s view. With this week’s Sotheby’s sale, the work’s next phase is assured to at least begin in private. Auction Daily will provide updates, if and when they are made available.