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 “
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
) 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.