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Fat price for Giacometti's thin man

Sotheby's auction also sees record price set for landscape painting by Gustav Klimt

So big spenders are cutting back? Clearly not all of them. A sculpture of a grimly determined walking man by Alberto Giacometti tonight broke records by becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction when it was bought for £65m.

The price, achieved at Sotheby's in London, was five times more than its estimate of £12m-18m, and beat the record set by Picasso's Garçon à la Pipe in 2004. That sold in New York for $104,168,000. With exchange rates the way they are the Giacometti pipped it at $104,327,006.

It was a recession-defying sale with something of a circular feel to it: the only reason it was up for auction was the banking crisis. It was part of the collection of the collapsed Dresdner Bank – bought in the 1980s – and was being sold by its new owners Commerzbank which promised to give all the money to charitable foundations.

For the buyers and their representatives, the Giacometti sale was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. The sculpture is considered to be one of the most important by the 20th-century Swiss artist.

There was a genuine sense of anticipation in the auction room. Not only could you smell the expensive perfumes and colognes, you could smell the money. Interest in the sculpture was clear from the start with bids being shouted before the auctioneer had even had chance to ask for them. "On your marks, get set, I'm going to start at £9m," said auctioneer Henry Wyndham.

"£12m," came the first bid. "That's my kind of price," said Wyndham.

The figure then rattled up quickly, ping-ponging around the room. In total there were 10 bidders but it came down to two telephone bidders from the mid-£30m mark onwards. When it went from £47m to £50m in a giant leap – what's £3m after all – there were gasps. When the hammer went down, there was loud applause.

But the Giacometti was not a one-off at the sale of impressionist and modern art. If there was any doubt the top end of art market is back on track it was dispelled by another record set tonight : the sale made £146,828,350, the highest amount ever made at a London sale.

Announcing that the audience had just witnessed "the highest price ever paid for any work ever sold at auction," Sotheby's co-chairman Melanie Clore said they were "absolutely thrilled."

Philip Hook, a senior director at Sotheby's, said one bidder told him he had been waiting 40 years for something like this to come on the market and "that's not the winning contender."

The auction house was refusing to give any details as to who might have bought the work, cast in 1961.

The sale had been the first of its type in London to have three works estimated at more than £10m. One of the most jaw- dropping, in terms of beauty, was a landscape by Gustav Klimt, Church in ­Cassone – Landscape with Cypresses, which had been estimated at £12-18m. It sold for £26.9m, setting an auction record for a Klimt landscape.It was also interesting because it was owned by an Austrian family before the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. The owners tried to hide it before being taken to the gas chambers but after the war it was gone, not reappearing until 1962.

A deal was brokered by Sotheby's restitution department whereby the seller split the proceeds with Georges Jorisch, the 81-year-old heir to the family who originally owned it.

In a statement he said: "Today's sale closes a long open chapter in my life in which I recover part of my forbears' legacy and pass it on to future generations, just as my parents would have wished."

Another highlight sold last night was a still life by Paul Cézanne, sold on estimate at £11.8m.

• This article was amended on 4 February 2010 to correct some spellings of Giacometti. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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