Brilliant Form: An Extraordinary Summer of Art

Ahead of Paris' Haute Couture week, the personal collection of legendary designer Hubert de Givenchy went on sale for the first time. It's just one of the remarkable auctions in this very busy – and buzzy – summer season as the art market continues to rebound and set records.

He's the inventor of the little black dress. Hubert de Givenchy and his extraordinary life-long collaboration with Audrey Hepburn led to one of the most iconic outfits in cinema history in the opening scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and his quadruple G logo has come to symbolize style.

Now his extensive art collection will go to auction through Christie's just ahead of Haute Couture week in Paris. There's a François Girardon bronze and a Picasso among the 1200 items up for sale, but two of the most notable and highly anticipated pieces are Joan Miró's The Passage of the Migratory Bird and Ablerto Giacometti's Woman Walking.

The Miró is an extraordinary offer as it has never been available on the art market before. Painted by the Spanish surrealist in 1968, Givenchy acquired it privately in the 1970s. The painting is seen in interior and architectural photographs of his home, styled near a 17th-century cabinet from André-Charles Boulle, nestled among modernist sofas and piles of books – emblematic of his eclectic approach to interior décor. The last Miró to hit the art market was Femme au chapeau rouge, which sold for $28.7 million in 2020.

Giacometti's five-foot-tall bronze sculpture is another highlight of the auction. The Swiss sculptor is known for how he twisted and turned human forms, elongated, spindly, and suspended in shape. This work is typical of the style he later became known for, but was conceived early during the Surrealist period of his early career and cast in 1955. Givenchy was not only a contemporary of Giacometti but a friend as well, and this piece was a gift from the socialite and style maven Bunny Mellon, giving the sculpture added sentimental value. Woman Walking is credited as the foundation for the later counterpart, The Walking Man, which was one of the most expensive works of art ever sold at auction when it went for $104.3 million in 2010. That sale was surpassed by his Pointing Man at $141.3 million five years later. For this auction Christie's is keeping tight-lipped; Woman Walking's estimate is only available by request.

One of Andy Warhol's iconic paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, has just become the most expensive piece of 20th Century art and the most expensive piece of American art ever sold, ringing up at $195 million. The Marilyn's price surpassed Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger and a Jean-Michael Basquiat painting of a skull to set the records.

The work is also a public record for a Warhol, passing his previous record of 1963's Silver Car Crash which went for $105 million in 2015. Others in the series include Shot Red Marilyn, which went for $4 million to a Japanese collector in 1989, and the Orange Marilyn which sold for $17 million in 1998. That version is said to have been sold privately for $220 million in 2018.

Warhol immortalized the late actress just after her death in 1962 with a series of silkscreens in bold, brash, and almost garish colors, using a publicity photo from the film "Niagara" shot a decade earlier. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was one of the series painted in 1964, which included her visage on backgrounds of red, orange, light blue, sage blue, and turquoise.

The series became even more famous when Dorothy Podber asked Warhol if she could shoot them. Stacked in order at his The Factory studio, Warhol is said to have believed she meant to take photos of the work – but the performance artist pulled out a gun and fired at the paintings. Four were damaged, hence the “shot” in the title, as the story goes. The legend makes it one of the most famous works of art in existence, and the image has been reproduced an infinite number of times all over the world.

The auction, coming at the start of the summer sale season, was widely seen as a sign of the pent-up energy of the luxury art market. The winning bidder was Larry Gagosian, of Gagosian gallery fame. Not only present in New York, Gagosian has show spaces in Athens, Basel, Beverly Hills, Geneva, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Rome among the sixteen outposts that exhibit some of the most influential modern and contemporary artists. The painting was sold by collector siblings Thomas and Doris Amman, and all proceeds will go to their child education charity.

In Hong Kong, Louise Bourgeois' Spider IV broke the Asian record for a sculpture. The two-meter-high arachnid is one of six limited editions created by the French artist of her signature subject. Perhaps an unusual muse, Bourgeois considered the eight-legged arthropods her “friends,” and is said to have taken inspiration from them as she grew up in a family of tapissiers and weavers.

Through this lens, Bourgeois saw spiders differently, as weavers themselves who would create a web of safety for her and could repair what was damaged. The artist called them, “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful,” and compared them to a maternal figure.

Bourgeois first major exhibit was at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1982, which was the museum's first solo exhibition of a female artist. Throughout her work, Bourgeois used the image of the spider in drawings, sculptures, prints, and installations, with the most famous being her giant Mama looming over the Tate Modern in 2000.

The work on auction was made even more famous when it was shot – and unlike Warhol's, this time with a camera – by Peter Bellamy in 1996. The famous photo depicts Bourgeois wrapped in the warm embrace of the giant arachnid. The portrait itself became emblematic of her relationship with her art and its subject, and thus the Spider IV became her most recognizable piece.

With this sale, Bourgeois broke her own record as the most expensive Asian auction price for a sculpture. She previously held it for her Quarantania, which sold for $8.5 million in 2018. Still, her larger, 3.2-meter high Spider holds the record for the most expensive sculpture by a female artist, and third most expensive artwork ever by a female artist, selling for $32 million in 2019.

A world away from arachnids, the jewelry and gems marked the record-setting sale of The Red Cross Diamond in Geneva. A frenzy of bidding for the rare canary yellow diamond saw it soar past its original estimate to ring up at $14 million.

The cushion-cut gem comes from a 375-carat rough stone found in 1901 in a South African mine, and is one of the largest diamonds in the world, according to Christie’s. It was cut into the shape of a Maltese cross with four small Vs marking its unique shape.

The auction house has offered it up before, most recently in 1973, when it sold to a private collector for $4.7 million in today's dollars.

It gets its name from not only its unique cut but from its first auction in 1918 when it was sold to benefit the British Red Cross Society and the Order of Saint John, which uses the red Maltese cross as part of its logo. It was sold to London jeweler S.J. Phillips for 10,000 GBP, roughly $780,000 in today's dollars.

The gem made a glittering return to the scene from an anonymous seller, with a significant portion of the proceeds pledged to benefit the International Committee of the Red Cross. The sale shows that diamond demand is indeed strong, with this stone setting a new record.

The art market has rebounded and proved to be resilient, with auction houses ringing up lucrative sales and breaking some of their biggest records. With summer temperatures soon to rise, it remains to be seen if prices will continue to as well.

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