This art-world story has little to do with van Gogh, but it's so mind-boggling it deserves a post. Yesterday afternoon, Sotheby's New York sold at auction a landmark ancient Near Eastern sculpture, known as the "Guennol lioness," for a record-shattering $51 million hammer price (just over $57 million with the buyer's premium). The estimates had been $14-18 million. The lioness is a well-known masterpiece of early Elamite sculpture, dating from ca. 3000 BC. It was found near Baghdad in the early 1930s and has been in private hands ever since. The most recent owners have had it since the 1940s, and have been very generous in loaning the lioness for exhibitions and to the Brooklyn Museum's ancient art galleries. If any antiquity in the world was going to go for $57 million at auction, this would be it because of its beauty and rarity, but still--it's unbelievable. Not only does the lioness become hands-down the most expensive antiquity ever sold at auction (and I'm guessing, sold ever), but it's also the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction, period.
This kind of price is usually found only for the big names of 19th and 20th century painting, and even then only for big-time works by those folks. Van Gogh's current auction record remains The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold at auction in 1990 for $82.5 million. That portrait has not been seen in public since--it was purchased by a Japanese businessman who kept it in a vault, and after his death, it is said to have been quietly sold to another collector in the late 1990s. The identity of the winning bidder of the Guennol Lioness has not (yet?) been revealed, but at that price, it's almost certainly a private collector. Here's hoping that the lioness' new owner will be as generous about sharing her as the previous owners were. It would be a shame for her to be tucked away in a vault, never to see the light of public day again.
By the way--did I mention she's only a shade over 3 inches tall? As one of my students put it, she cost not quite $20 million per inch. Wow.