Art Market

Why 2018 Could Be Picasso’s Billion Dollar Year

Nate Freeman
Apr 10, 2018 5:45PM

Pablo Picasso, Le Repos, 1932. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The two-week winter London sales season each February acts as the art market’s throat-clearer, the year’s first opportunity to sell works at auction, and houses often offer pieces by that enduring auction stalwart, Pablo Picasso. In 2017, this went smoothly: After their Impressionist and modern sales, the three major auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips) had sold over $80 million of Picassos, with nearly a dozen paintings and works on paper clearing the $1 million mark.

This year, things were different. During the two weeks of auctions, several dozen paintings, drawings, and prints by Picasso sold for more than $220 million, an astonishing figure that boosted sale totals for all three auction houses.

Experts say this year’s Picasso rush has several key drivers, including a blockbuster show at the Tate Modern; an unusually high number of once-in-a-generation works consigned at the same time; and a surge in interest in the artist from cash-rich Asian buyers. This perfect storm could bring 2018 Picasso sales to half a billion dollars just five months into the year, once several key works go on the block in May.

“The confluence of quote-unquote masterpieces coming up in the same short amount of time is highly unusual, and it would be hard to imagine another season when so many great works by Picasso were to come up,” said Max Carter, head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s. He said demand this season is coming from both “very active and emerging buyers who have fueled this added layer of competition” in the past 18 months, as well as “long-dormant clients who…really only come out for the very best.”

The Picassomania is such that one of the masterworks on offer, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905), a Rose Period painting that’s the crown jewel of the collection of David Rockefeller, had its $70 million estimate revised to $120 million—an upwards climb of an eye-popping $50 million—after executives at Christie’s toured the piece among clients and realized its demand was deeper and more ravenous than originally thought.

In May, Christie’s is also offering Le Marin (1943), which was once part of the fabled collection of Victor and Sally Ganz and is being sold by Steve Wynn, the embattled Las Vegas casino magnate who has been divesting his shares of his hotel empire after stepping down as CEO amid accusations of sexual assault. It is estimated to sell in the range of $70 million.

“People see Picasso as the great name in 20th-century art,” said Carter. “And if you can buy the best examples within his work, you’re never going to regret it.”

Carter said the only comparable run on a single artist’s work at auction was the 1997 Christie’s sale of works from the Ganz collection, which, in addition to the sale of Le Marin for $8.8 million, saw Le Rêve (1932) sell for $48.4 million. It was a frantic display of frenzied Picasso bidding that has been described in retrospect as “a steroid injection to the market.”

But the historic Ganz auction could be eclipsed when the dust settles on this year’s New York sales. The 17 works by Picasso in the Ganz sale grossed $164.5 million in 1997 dollars, or $253.7 million in today’s dollars. On top of the $220 million spent on Picassos in London in February, the two works at Christie’s in May could each crack the artist’s top five figures ever achieved.

“They could both make north of $100 million because they are both exceptional, and they both have remarkable provenance,” said Brett Gorvy, a co-owner of the gallery Lévy Gorvy and former chairman of the post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s. He knows a thing or two about pricy Picassos: In 2015, Gorvy was bidding on behalf of a client trying to win Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) from 1955, battling it out against post-war and contemporary head Loic Gouzer as the bidding soared past $150 million. Gorvy’s client bid a historic—and winning—figure of $160 million, drawing gasps from the crowd. With the buyer’s premium, the total came to $179 million, a record for any work of art sold at auction until Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold at Christie’s for $450 million in November 2017.

The recent London sales achieved such a high figure due to the runaway success of the top two lots. Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille (1937) broke the record for the most expensive painting ever sold in Europe when it went for $69.2 million at Sotheby’s, and the newly resurgent Phillips was able to gin up the bidding on one of its all-time trophy consignments, Picasso’s La Dormeuse (1932). Estimated to top off at $25.4 million, it instead pulled in $59.1 million after bidding, with Gorvy losing out as the underbidder to Harry Smith, the same advisor who picked up Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille at Sotheby’s. Those two works were among the 13 Picasso works purchased by Smith and his firm, Gurr Johns, on behalf of their clients during the sales.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Brooke Lampley—who recently began her post as vice chairman of the fine art department at Sotheby’s, after a year-long garden leave following her departure from Christie’s—said consignors brought works to London instead of New York to capitalize on the timing of “Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy,” which opened at the Tate Modern on March 8th right after the week of Impressionist and modern sales, having traveled from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The show, which focuses on the artist’s career during a year of infatuation with his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, had a particular effect on consigned work that could have been installed at the Tate. La Dormeuse is from 1932, and its connection to the exhibition helped the work sell for double its high estimate.

“The exhibition in Paris and London of the 1932 works has had a decisive impact on the market,” Lampley said. “Scholarly attention to this particular year, an academic affirmation that this is a pinnacle for Picasso’s work—that means a lot [for] the market, and you can see that in the results from February.”

She noted that at its forthcoming Impressionist and modern art evening sale, Sotheby’s will sell a 1932 work, Le Repos, another sensuous depiction of Marie-Thérèse that could have been at the Tate if it were not for sale. Its high estimate is $35 million—but, if the sale at Phillips is any indication, that seems low.

“It’s languorous, it’s curvaceous, it’s rapturous,” Lampley said.

She was referring to the nature of works the 50-year-old Picasso made in 1932 while in the throes of his love affair, spending his days that summer at the Château de Boisgeloup, his country house 45 minutes outside of Paris, painting the curvy form of Marie-Thérèse while hiding the trysts from his wife, Olga. Her effect on the paintings is palpable.

“Romance isn’t usually the mode,” Lampley said, adding that people usually associate the painter with “Dora Maar and aggressive cubistic fragmentation and abstraction.”

Gorvy called the timing of the Tate show “auspicious,” but said the real driver was the longer-term trend of Asian collectors’ growing enthusiasm for brand-name Western artists, particularly their trophy works. He said the under-bidder on the small painting of Marie-Thérèse that sold at Sotheby’s London in February for $69.2 million was an Asian collector.

“If you go back the last year and a half and you see high-value Picassos, you’ll see there’s very strong Asian buying,” Gorvy said. “Not only the Asian tastes there, but the number of Asian buyers who are now actively participating with Picasso.”

Of course, the strength of the Picasso market goes well beyond any single year or exhibition. Part of the reason works by Picasso are able to sell for near or over $100 million more frequently than any other artist is that his practice can be broken down into multiple selling categories over his nearly eight-decade-long career, with multiple celebrated phases, each boasting several coveted masterworks.

“There isn’t utter singularity in his market because he was such a maverick and an innovator,” Lampley said. “Every single decade has the breadth and depth of other artists’ careers.”

Accordingly, the 2018 Picasso market bonanza is a many-headed hydra featuring works from many different eras. The record-breaking work at Sotheby’s in London was a masterpiece of the Marie-Thérèse canon, while Le Marin—the work consigned by Steve Wynn that’s selling at Christie’s New York in May—is a rare self-portrait painted while living in occupied France, in fear of imprisonment or death. And the work from Rockefeller’s collection is one of just a few exceptional Rose Period pieces left in private hands.

“I wish I could say this is by design, that all these masterpieces are coming out, but it was very fortuitous there was the number of masterpieces across various periods,” Carter said. “And on that level, there’s a huge appetite for these masterpiece works.”

The Rockefeller work, with its newly upgraded high estimate of $120 million, stands to be the biggest hit of the season, and perhaps the year. No work has held an estimate that high since the record-breaking Picasso of 2015, which was estimated to sell for $140 million.

“We found…such intense interest in certain works, our old estimates were no longer accurate and no longer reflected what we thought what was appropriate,” Carter said of its adjustment.

The work’s provenance is indeed exceptional. The Rose Period portrait of a young girl holding a bushel of scarlet-hued flowers was once owned by Gertrude Stein, hanging for years in her famed Paris salon. Ernest Hemingway remembers seeing it during the years of boozy symposia, writing as an aside in A Moveable Feast, “I took another sip of the eau-de-vie and pitied the old man and looked at Picasso’s nude of the girl with the basket of flowers.” Upon Stein’s death in 1946, it went to her partner, Alice B. Toklas, and when she died in 1967, Stein’s heirs decided to sell 38 Picassos (along with nine works by Juan Gris) to a consortium of industrial titans serving on the board of the Museum of Modern Art: André Meyer, William S. Paley, David Rockefeller, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and John Hay Whitney.

Pablo Picasso, Filette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Pablo Picasso, Le Marin, 1943. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Christie’s.

These men—among the most powerful in America—drew straws to see who would pick first. David Rockefeller won, choosing Picasso’s portrait of the girl holding flowers. It stayed in the library of his mansion at 146 East 65th Street until he died in 2017, at the age of 101.

The entire Rockefeller collection will hit the block a week before the traditional auction week, including Le Marin, Picasso’s rare moment of introspection that allows him to be just a tad bit self-deprecating: Meaning “the sailor” in French, Picasso titled it as such because he depicted himself in his blue-striped sailor’s shirt, a workingman’s outfit. The painting is visible in Lee Miller’s memorable image of the artist smoking a stub of a cigarette in his studio.  

“Picasso uses himself as a proxy or a surrogate in many of his paintings, but in terms of a truly important work where he’s front and center, there hasn’t been one in decades—since, perhaps, this painting,” Carter said.

The painting has been traded around quite a bit in the meantime. It sold for $8.8 million in the Ganz sale to Wolfgang Flöttl, the Austrian investment banker who also purchased Le Rêve the same day. In just a few years, though, Flöttl’s financial empire crumbled—according to an article in the Austrian paper Der Standard, he held a fire sale of Impressionist and modern treasures in 2006 to raise cash; earlier, he had sold Le Rêve for $60 million to Steve Wynn in a 2001 sale brokered by dealer David Nash. Flöttl also sold Le Marin around that same time; Wynn has said the buyer of that work was Netscape co-founder Jim Clark, who, like Wynn, has a property on the same stretch of Palm Beach gold coast known as Billionaire’s Row.  

In the same interview, Wynn admitted that he wanted both Le Rêve and Le Marin when they came up at the Ganz sale, but didn’t want to shell out that kind of cash at the time. He was able to get Le Marin from Clark only after finally selling Le Rêve to hedge fund titan Steve Cohen in 2012. The deal had been set in 2006 for $139 million, but the visually impaired Wynn—who has chronic retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that eats away at the ability to see—accidentally elbowed the painting while showing it to friends, and the deal stalled while it was being repaired. Cohen eventually paid $155 million for the restored work, allowing Wynn to acquire Le Marin for an undisclosed price.

(Wynn could not be reached for comment. Asked about the identity of Le Marin’s consignor, a representative for Christie’s said, “As a matter of policy Christie’s does not identify buyers or sellers by name without permission.”)

Gorvy, who said Wynn was selling the work in an interview after mentioning the consignor on his Instagram, had been involved, alongside Christie’s chairman Gouzer, in extracting work from the Wynn collection during his time at Christie’s. In 2015, he used a guarantee to convince him to sell a portrait of Dora Maar that eventually went—to an Asian collector, as Gorvy told me—for $67.4 million, above the $55 million pre-sale estimate.

Gorvy said Wynn has always been a buyer and a seller—for instance, he said Wynn is also the consignor of Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963), which is estimated to sell in the region of $30 million in May’s post-war and contemporary sale at Christie’s, and the house is also selling a smaller Picasso that belongs to Wynn. The consignments came in February, around the same time that Wynn resigned from his company amid reports of sexual misconduct and divested his 12.1 million shares in Wynn Resorts for $2.1 billion.

The resignation agreement also stated that Wynn must leave his residence, a villa on the first floor of Wynn Las Vegas, before June 1st, where Le Marin had been hanging on the wall, according to a 2013 article in Boston Magazine.

Asked about the consignor, Carter would only say that, with the Rockefeller sale the week before, it seemed like a canny time for anyone to put a prize Picasso up for market.

“We’ve seen historically time and time again that when you sell alongside a great collection there is a lift from that, there’s this greater international focus and attention,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of consignors who said they believe in the power of Rockefeller.”

And Gorvy thinks that, despite the rarity of such a trove of Picassos coming to the market at the same time, the first half of 2018 may not be the very top of the artist’s selling power.

“I don’t think the market’s anywhere near a peak at the moment,” he said. “It’s a growing market in some ways. It’s Picasso—Picasso is an artist who painted a painting a day. Some of the best, best paintings are untouchable, but there are paintings that are in private collections. It’s just a question of whether that individual will sell at some outrageous price. Nothing’s impossible.”

Nate Freeman