Each May in New York, the art world holds its equivalent of the World Series: The Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sales, where two rival teams—Christie’s and Sotheby’s—square off by assembling the best rosters they can and testing them before a live audience.
It is a seasonal ritual that rivets the attention of the art market and the media, and Picasso is its perennial MVP. The first painting ever to fetch more than $100 million at auction sold in May in New York. So did the second. And both were by the late Spanish master: Garçon à la pipe (Boy with a Pipe) sold for $104.2 million at Sotheby’s in 2004 (at the time, it was a record for any artwork at auction). Six years later, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust brought $106.5 million at Christie’s (still the most paid for a painting at auction).
But extraordinary auction performances are just that—extraordinary. Literally hundreds of Picassos change hands every year. Between 2005 and 2011, his works earned more than $2.1 billion at auction. Picasso became a blue-chip artist before he reached middle age, and today, almost 40 years after his death, his pieces are still commanding some of the highest and most stable prices in the art world. “In all the places where new wealth is being created, Picasso and Monet are the best-known names,” says David Norman, Sotheby’s executive vice president and cochairman of Impressionist and Modern Art worldwide. “The influx of money tends to go to Picasso first and foremost, and record sales certainly make people spending $500,000 to $5 million feel secure.”
Statistics also reveal that Picasso is on an incredible streak: From 1995 to 2011, all of his top-10 works sold at auction were more than $1 million. Thomas Galbraith, director of Artnet Analytics, conceded that few other artists could achieve such a feat. Andy Warhol comes close, with a streak extending back to 2001.
This year, as always, the auction houses labored for months to consign choice Picasso paintings for their 2012 sales, which will take place May 1 at Christie’s New York and May 2 at Sotheby’s New York. By March, Sotheby’s had secured Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Woman Sitting in an Armchair), signed and dated October 23, 1941, and expected to sell for $20 million to $30 million. Picasso painted it in the same year as Dora Maar au chat (Dora Maar with Cat), and it features the same dark-haired model. Sotheby’s will also offer Tête de femme (Portrait de Françoise), a striking unsigned canvas of Françoise Gilot, an artist and paramour of Picasso who celebrated her 90th birthday last November. Dated June 15, 1946, it is estimated at $4 million to $6 million. Meanwhile, Christie’s confirmed three paintings from different eras of the master’s life, including Le repos (Rest), signed and dated May 17, 1932, a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the blonde mistress who appears in Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. Measuring just 10¾ inches by 18? inches, it could sell for $5 million or more. Another work, Femme dans l’atelier (Woman in the Studio), a signed canvas painted on April 3, 1956, carries an estimate of $3 million to $5 million and features Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s second wife.
None of these will scale the heights of Picasso’s three top sellers, but few works can: The prices paid for Nude, Green Leaves and Bust; Boy with a Pipe; and a third work, Dora Maar with Cat, which sold for $95.2 million at Sotheby’s in May 2006, make them first, second, and third, respectively, on the all-time auction list.
How is it possible that a single artist can sell so well for so long? Experts point to a number of factors beyond Picasso’s formidable legacy and persona, beginning with his large body of work. Picasso’s career began in his youth and lasted until he died at 91 in 1973. He meticulously dated his pieces and was stunningly prolific: His creative output has been estimated at roughly 50,000 artworks, with paintings, which have brought the highest prices at auction, accounting for fewer than 5,000 of that total (see “King of All Media,” below).
Because his style varied so markedly over the decades, Picasso appeals to a broader range of collectors than most artists. Collectors of works from his Blue and Rose periods, for example, are rarely interested in his later cubist works, while collectors of his late works have more in common with collectors of postwar art. “His work is easily differentiated into periods, and they are easily differentiated from each other,” says Brooke Lampley, Christie’s New York head of Impressionist and Modern Art. And while Picasso certainly had his bad days in the studio, the good and great ones outnumber them, and his dates make it easier to spot which were which. “Those windows where Picasso changes his style, about every decade or so, don’t have any weaknesses. That’s the excitement,” says Robert Landau of Landau Fine Art in Montreal, Canada. And for those, he adds, collectors “pay what it takes—they may pay a little more if it is signed.”
Picasso’s ability to deliver quantity and quality resulted in works that earned $420 million at auction in 2010, accounting for 3.6 percent of the total sales volume of the art market for that year and 11 percent of the sales volume in the Modern Art category, according to Artnet, a database of art auction sales.
“It’s like a bellwether stock, in a way,” Galbraith says of the Picasso market. “You can invest in him and be pretty sure you won’t get a bumper return, but it will steadily increase because there’s a constant demand.”
The Mei Moses Fine Art Index, which tracks the performance of art as a financial investment, places the average compound annual return for Picasso at 8.6 percent. That is almost a percentage point above the 7.7 average compound annual return it gives for the Impressionist and Modern Art category as a whole. Moreover, the assessment draws on its proprietary database, which includes only Picassos that have sold at public auction at least twice. That means Picasso’s top sellers—Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Boy with a Pipe, and Dora Maar with Cat—do not meet the Index criteria yet. But 420 other pieces by Picasso—the most by any individual artist that it tracks—qualify. “Relative to other works of art, he’s a lot less risky,” says Michael Moses, cofounder of the Index. Moses adds, however, that “the higher the price you pay, the lower the returns are on average.”
The larger matter is how record auction sales affect the value of his other works. Historically, Picasso collectors have fought hardest over examples from his Blue period, which features a cool palette, and his Rose period, which favors warmer tones. Both periods ended well before 1910.
Picasso painted Dora Maar with Cat, a three-quarter-view portrait of his mistress, in 1941. By then, he was an established artist and global celebrity thanks to Guernica, the 1937 antiwar masterpiece that defined his style in the eyes of the wider public. “It was a revelation for the market that a picture from 1941 was almost as valuable as a picture from 1905,” Lampley says, referring to the sale of the Rose period’s Boy with a Pipe just a few years earlier. “It changed the market greatly.”
The record outing of Nude, Green Leaves and Bust also represents a shift in taste. Twenty years ago, virtually no one would have picked a Picasso painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter to someday soar past $100 million. “Earlier generations of collectors didn’t find those Marie-Thérèse paintings so compelling, but now newer generations find that they are,” says Michael Findlay author of The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, released by Prestel in April, and a director of Acquavella Galleries, a New York gallery that mounted an acclaimed Marie-Thérèse exhibit in 2008. Previously, Marie-Thérèse works were regarded as “softer” and “more decorative,” he says.
“She didn’t look like the other women in Picasso’s life,” Findlay continues. “As much as he might distort her features, she stands out as (a) a blonde, and (b) rounder, and possibly more sensuous.” Le rêve (The Dream), a 1932 painting of Marie-Thérèse, her head thrown back in rapture, drew the most attention at the Acquavella show because it was its first public appearance after a famous mishap: After reportedly accepting a nine-figure offer for The Dream in 2006, owner Steve Wynn accidentally tore the canvas while showing it to friends. (Wynn has since restored the piece and still owns it.) Findlay says he “would love to take credit” for stoking interest in the Marie-Thérèse Picassos, but he considers the turning point a 1997 Christie’s New York auction, at which The Dream garnered $48.4 million, a then-staggering amount that today would not place it among Picasso’s top five sellers.
Sotheby’s Norman draws a direct line between the 2010 auction of Nude, Green Leaves and Bust and a subsequent sale of another 1932 Marie-Thérèse Picasso. Eight bidders pursued La Lecture, which portrays the young woman dozing bare-breasted with an open book on her lap and an expression that calls to mind The Dream. It sold for $40.6 million against a high estimate of $27.9 million at Sotheby’s London in February 2011. “That did increase in price dramatically because of the Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” he says, adding that it was also influenced by the sum that Wynn was believed to have accepted for The Dream.
Late works—those Picasso made primarily between the 1960s and his death—are benefitting from a reevaluation by critics and collectors, not to mention that they are simply more available to collectors. Initially derided as the artistic rants of a frustrated old man, these pieces (at least, the best of them) now command tens of millions. In November, Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale featured a colorful 1967 canvas, L’Aubade, that fetched $23 million, a record for a late-Picasso painting. Norman says it succeeded because it combines grand scale (51¼ inches by 76¾ inches) with a “tremendous degree of finish. Other late works feel quicker and more spontaneous. This was worked deeply, layer over layer, with a lot of texture.”
The trick to collecting Picassos is resisting the temptation to snap up less stellar stuff while waiting for the best to become available. “There are lots of duds—not fakes, but duds,” says Landau, who notes that “even the duds are bringing a lot of money” in the current climate. He stresses the importance of relying on professionals who can spot duds on sight: “You should not buy something of poor quality, even if you like it, especially in a hot market.”
The market for Picasso paintings will reward patience. At least 25 Picassos currently in private hands have the potential to meet or beat the sums fetched by Boy with a Pipe, Dora Maar with Cat, and Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, and there may well be more. “I look forward to a long career at Christie’s, and the longer I’m here, the bigger the numbers become,” Lampley says. “I believe there are a number of works today that would not be at that level, but in 10 years, they could be.”
Acquavella Galleries, 212.734.6300, www.acquavellagalleries.com; Christie’s, 212.636.2000, www.christies.com; Jane Kahan Gallery, 212.744.1490, www.janekahan.com; Landau Fine Art, 514.849.3311, www.landaufineart.ca; Sotheby’s, 212.606.7000, www.sothebys.com; David Tunick, 212.570.0090, www.tunickart.com
King of All Media
Picasso embraced a startlingly large number of artistic mediums: painting, drawing, sculpture, prints, ceramics, works on paper, and even tapestries. And while canvases grow scarcer and more costly, Picasso works in other mediums remain more accessible. “If a collector wants to own a good, museum-quality Picasso, it’s possible at almost any price range,” says David Tunick, a New York print dealer.
Each Picasso medium is a distinct market. The 1941 bronze Tête de femme (Dora Maar) earned $29.2 million and the record for a Picasso sculpture at auction, at Sotheby’s New York in 2007, but its performance was driven by greater interest in sculpture as a whole. Picasso benefitted from the same momentum that in February 2010 pushed Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I to claim the title of most expensive artwork at auction, at Sotheby’s London.
Picasso prints and ceramics—which required the artist to rely on technicians—have set fresh auction records with the help of inspired sales strategies. Christie’s New York placed an exceedingly rare 1937 print of La femme qui pleure, I (The Weeping Woman, I), an image that influenced his painting Guernica in its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in November, where it fetched $5.1 million. “Five years ago, without a doubt, La femme qui pleure, I would have been in the print sale,” says Tudor Davies, head of the prints and multiples department at Christie’s New York, adding that the evening sale “provided the platform that piece needed to open it to a wider audience.”
Sotheby’s Paris saw two Picasso vases—Grand vase avec danseurs—soar to more than $822,488 when it offered them as serial lots in December 2010.
Thomas Bompard, head of Impressionist and Modern Art for Sotheby’s Paris, knew he had a winner when he first viewed the pair, which represented numbers 18 and 19 from a coveted edition of 25 that was conceived in 1950. “When I stood in front of them, I said, ‘Oh là là,’ ” Bompard recalls. “I was sure they were going to do something really big.” He overcame the consignor’s apprehensions and placed both vases in the same Paris auction. The pair was “exactly the kind of objects that collectors are really keen to get: a room-transforming work of art,” he says. “And the next time there are two big vases at auction, the price will be bigger.”