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This is what $270 million worth of art in one room looks like

By Gideon Lichfield

At Christie’s New York this morning, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auction house’s global president, held open the doors of an elevator and beckoned a handful of waiting journalists: ”Come in, there’s plenty of room!” We filed in, trying not to crowd the gallery hand who was standing in one corner holding a medium-sized, white-framed painting with its back to us. Pylkkanen glanced over at him.

“Is that the Picasso? The red one?” Yes, said somebody. Pylkkanen’s casual composure flickered, but only just. “Well,” he said, “we have a $60 million passenger.”

Picasso’s Buste de Femme (Femme à la Resille) is far from the priciest of the artworks going under the hammer tonight in New York at “Looking Forward to the Past,” Christie’s auction of 35 works created over more than a century.

Picasso's "Buste de femme (Femme à la résille)"
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Pablo Picasso’s “Buste de femme (Femme à la résille)”

There is Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt, a nearly six-foot (180cm), rail-thin figure pointing as if to the future, which could be worth as much as $140 million, according to the auction house’s staff. At the Christie’s galleries, it’s the centerpiece of a room to which a security guard admits only 10 visitors at a time, and which contains eight pieces collectively worth some $270 million at the high ends of their estimates. They include a severe red-and-black Rothko stripe painting (estimated to go for $30-50 million)…

Alberto Giacometti's "L'homme au doigt" with Mark Rothko's "No. 36 (Black Stripe)" in the background
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Alberto Giacometti’s “L’homme au doigt” with Mark Rothko’s “No. 36 (Black Stripe)” in the background

…a sultry, lilac-fringed sunset over London’s Palace of Westminster from Monet’s Parliament series ($35-$45 million)…

Claude Monet's "Le Parlement, soleil couchant"
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Claude Monet’s “Le Parlement, soleil couchant”

…and another Picasso, Femme Assise (Dora Maar), at $4-$6 million…

Picasso's "Femme Assise (Dora Maar)"
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Picasso’s “Femme Assise (Dora Maar)”

… as well as an Alexander Calder mobile that’s as delicate and balanced as a praying mantis, and a bright red Lucio Fontana canvas with bold vertical slash marks.

Lucio Fontana's "Concetto spaziale, Attese"
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Lucio Fontana’s “Concetto spaziale, Attese”

And then there is the star of the show, the last of 15 versions (Version “O”) of Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger, which the artist conceived as a homage to his recently deceased friend Henri Matisse (though not, notes Pylkkanen, without trying to show that he could do what Matisse did “even better than his friend.”) The Giacometti could break the price record for a sculpture sold at auction; Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) could break the $155 million barrier, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. (Update: It sold for $179 million.)

Pablo Picasso's "Les Femmes d'Alger (Version 'O')"
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Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” which sold for a record $179 million on May 11.

Even subtracting these trophy masterpieces, the show is filled with remarkable work, from an Andy Warhol diptych of Elizabeth Taylor to the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of On Kawara’s epic “a painting a day” series—complete with a front page of the New York Times showing the wreckage of the World Trade Center—to a seated, life-size figure by Urs Fischer, made out of candle wax and threaded through with wicks, which have already been lit a few times. After burning it down, the buyer who secures the work for an estimated $1.2-$1.8 million can order a new cast from the artist—but that will cost extra.

Urs Fischer, "Untitled"
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Urs Fischer’s untitled wax sculpture comes with the option of ordering a second copy after you’ve burned through the first one—at your expense.

The “Looking Forward to the Past” auction will live-stream on Christie’s site at 7pm today New York time.