A bronze sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art became a little more topical this month and a lot more valuable.
Alberto Giacometti’s “Chariot” has been a part of the Nelson’s collection since 2000, when it was given to the museum by the Hall Family Foundation as part of a gift of 84 artworks.
At the time, the entire gift was valued at $80 million. It included important works by leading 20th century artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Max Ernst, George Segal and Magdalena Abakanowicz.
The sculpture, which stands 4 feet 81/4 inches tall, features a thin, elongated woman atop a chariot. It is number five of an edition of seven casts, with the numbering starting at zero.
On Nov. 4, another “Chariot” (number two), sold at a New York Sotheby’s auction for $101 million. It was just shy of the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction — another Giacometti piece titled “The Walking Man I,” which sold for $104.3 million in February 2010 at Sotheby’s in London.
This month’s sale means a single piece from that $80 million gift to the Nelson is worth considerably more than the valuation 14 years ago for all 84 works.
Don Hall, chairman of the Hall Family Foundation, said the acquisition “was wisely recommended” by Martin Friedman, adviser to the foundation and then-museum director Marc Wilson and former curator Deborah Emont Scott.
“The recent auction price of a similar piece confirms the wisdom of their advice,” Hall said. “I hope Kansas Citians will take the opportunity to visit the museum and enjoy this seemingly fragile but grand and statuesque piece.”
Giacometti died in 1966.
The sculpture can now be viewed in the Bloch Building, but visitors to the Nelson have been enjoying the sculpture for more than two decades since the Hall Family Foundation purchased it in May 1991 and initially put it on long-term loan to the museum.
What doesn’t change with the “Chariot’s” new vaulted status is the artist’s message. The Swiss artist’s works are in collections across the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“Giacometti’s ‘Chariot’ reveals the precariousness of human existence with a spareness that cuts straight to the heart,” said Jan Schall, the museum’s curator of modern art. “It asks each of us to consider the fundamental questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? After the nightmare of World War II, these questions required real answers.”
The catalog for the recent Sotheby’s auction recounts that the piece was inspired in part by the nurses’ pharmacy carts Giacometti saw during a hospital stay after a traffic accident. Other influences include an Egyptian chariot he saw at the Archaelogical Museum in Florence and a gilded sculpture of Joan of Arc in Paris.
The “Chariot” was one of four sculptures the Hall Family Foundation acquired from the collection of Dallas businessman Raymond Nasher and his wife, Patsy, in May 1991 as part of the museum’s Modern Sculpture Initiative. The plan was formally launched in 1992 to acquire major works of modern sculpture.
In addition to the “Chariot,” they purchased Brancusi’s “Portrait of Nancy Cunard” and sculptures by minimalist Carl Andre and German surrealist Max Ernst.
“At the time we made the purchase from Nasher, it was felt that the most significant piece was the Brancusi because it was one of a kind,” recalled Bill Hall, president of the Hall Family Foundation. “We saw the Brancusi and the Giacometti as the two great items.”
“When casting in bronze, the artist makes a mold of the sculptural model. Typically, an edition of several works are cast from this mold,” Schall said. “Officially, there are seven casts of Giacometti’s ‘Chariot.’ They are numbered 0/6 through 6/6. The Nelson’s sculpture is numbered 5/6.”
There’s another reason the Nelson’s “Chariot” is special.
“Two of these casts have an additional application of surface color. One is the ‘Chariot’ that sold at Sotheby’s,” Schall said. “The Nelson owns the other. We believe Giacometti may have applied a whitewash to ours and then wiped it off, leaving some of that wash in the crevices of the sculpture.”
The huge price commanded by “Chariot” at Sotheby’s raises questions about the other works in that $80 million gift.
Schall declined to speculate.
“They’re priceless,” she said.