The ultimate art-market star
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is the 20th century’s star painter, but he is also the ultimate art-market star of the early 21st century. Looking at the numbers, according to the Artprice database 100 euros invested on average in a Picasso work in 2000 would be valued at 190 euros in December 2020.
3250 works in 2020
In 2020 alone, 3250 works by Picasso – paintings, sculptures, multiples – went to auction and brought in a total of 117.5 million dollars. During the course of this period only 18.6% of lots by Picasso were left without a buyer. Over the past 10 years the majority of his works (59%) have been put up for sale in the United States.
Femme assise près d’une fenêtre
This time, on 11 May 2021, Christie’s is staging the sale of a painting in New York which is one of the stars of the season. “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” is a large oil work measuring 146x114cm, painted on 30 October 1932 at his country house in Normandy in Boisgeloup (See here the story about Boisgeloup). That year was a pivotal date in terms of his artistic creation.
While the world was experiencing serious crises (the rise of the far right in Europe, major economic problems) the artist took refuge in his painting, his love affair, and working on his career. In twelve months he produced no less than 111 artworks.
First catalogue raisonné
It was also in 1932 that the first volume of his catalogue raisonné was published, recording his creative output in its entirety. That same year he held his first retrospective at the Georges Petit gallery in Paris and the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which included numerous new paintings.
This was featured as part of an exceptional exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Paris, “Picasso 1932, année érotique”, in 2017 and 2018, followed by another version at the Tate Modern in London (See the report about the exhibition here). The work put up for sale at Christie’s was also part of this exhibition.
An art market rumour intimated that perhaps the Monaco-based dealer and collector David Nahmad was the owner. When asked, he responded that he had loaned no less than six works to the Picasso Museum for the “1932, année érotique” exhibition, but that this one doesn’t belong to him.
Indeed, in the Picasso Museum’s catalogue it is listed as being the property of the EarthLight Foundation in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. This organization, which seeks “to support the expansion of life and humanity beyond the Earth”, was founded by Rick Tumlinson, an American who has founded various space companies. The artwork was bought on 5 February 2013 for 33 million euros (39.5 million dollars).
Overseeing the Christie’s sale is Giovanna Bertazzoni, who confirms that Tumlinson is indeed the art lover who is putting “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” up for sale. On 14 May 1997 the canvas was auctioned for 6.3 million euros. But the painting is not even one of the most sought-after from 1932.
Winter of 1932
The works subject to the highest demand were produced during the winter and then displayed at the double retrospective that same year, and they completely encapsulate the erotic charge that is such a characteristic expression of the artist.
Olga and Marie-Thérèse
Married to Olga, a former ballerina with the Ballets Russes, who encouraged him to display a degree of social prestige (a powerful Hispano-Suiza car, a little château as a second home etc), Picasso was 46 in 1927 when he met his very young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. He approached this blonde, pale-faced girl, who was barely 17 years old at the time, as she was walking out of the Galeries Lafayette.
She inspired a wild passion in him, expressed through his painting in a style using traits of surrealism, sinuous forms which perhaps derive from Ingres’ odalisques, and a colour code. Marie-Thérèse is yellow and purple. We find these two shades in “La femme assise” at Christie’s, with less erotic intensity. This composition leans more towards a geometric symphony constructed on multiple planes, with straight lines in the background and curves in the middle.
Record at auction
The record price at auction for a work by the Malaga master made in 1932 was 106.4 million dollars in 2010 for “Nu couché avec feuilles vertes et buste”, painted in a large-scale format (162x130cm) on 8 March. Christian Zervos, who compiled Picasso’s catalogue raisonné, commented: “Each time Picasso paints a female nude, he maintains a relationship with it that is in some way erotic, the body he paints he also possesses sensually.”
Laurence Madeline, the curator of the exhibition at the Picasso Museum, explained that the artist used eroticism as a creative motor to produce intensively.
The best illustration of this is a canvas from 1932 which was also featured on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition in London and Paris: “Le rêve”. Made on 24 January, it depicts the young woman (Marie-Thérèse) falling asleep, her head tilted to one side, a single breast showing, and part of her head forming an image of the male genitals. It has an extraordinary history. For a long time “Le rêve” belonged to a legendary collector couple who made costume jewellery in New York, and had a formidable eye, Victor and Sally Ganz. When the work was sold at auction in 1997, it obtained 48.4 million dollars. It was bought by the Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn. Some years later, during a public visit to his collection, he unfortunately hit his elbow against the legendary painting and damaged it. But there was a happy ending, because once it was restored it went on to be sold in a private sale in 2013, allegedly for 155 million dollars, to the New York collector and hedge fund owner, Steven A. Cohen.
In the face of these tens of millions of dollars thrown at Picassos dating from 1932, you might think the estimate for “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” is, proportionally speaking, “reasonable”. But it is in fact fairly bold. By announcing an estimate of 55 million dollars, Christie’s is showing no hesitation in according to this geometric portrait of Marie-Thérèse a potential profit amounting to 15.5 million dollars in eight years. This is also taking place during a global pandemic.
Femme nue couchée au collier
“There is some snobbery surrounding 1932 which was reinforced by the exhibition in Paris and London. And this large-scale painting literally changes the space around it,” observes Giovanna Bertazzoni, who also adds: “Now more than ever, Picasso is a global artist. In the art market, his name is like a brand. Here’s the proof: on 21 March 2021 we sold a small canvas from 1932 (40.6×40.6cm), ‘Femme nue couchée au collier’, for 16.9 million euros. It was bought by a Chinese buyer who was the underbidder for the NFT which attained the record sum of 69.3 million dollars on 11 March 2021.”
Justin Sun is a new technologies entrepreneur who founded the crypto-currency platform Tron. On 1st April he announced on his Twitter account that his fund, which is now unfittingly named “Just NFT”, acquired the painting “Femme nue couchée au collier”. He added: “I believe more world-class artworks by top-notch artists will be added to the JUST NFT catalog in the future.” Giovanna Bertazzoni explains that the Chinese branch of Christie’s were contacted by Justin Sun, who was looking for other NFTs to acquire, and they pointed him in the direction of the modern art sale in London. “He was immediately drawn to Picasso. A new generation, including those in tech, is interested in the painter,” concludes the Christie’s modern art specialist.
To be confirmed
Like Picasso in his time, Picasso’s artworks also seem to show defiance in the face of a global crisis. They are seen as safe havens. To be confirmed on 11 May 2021.
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