The art market seemed in robust form last week as London’s Impressionist and Modern art sales amassed £342 million — right on target. Ever competitive, Christie’s is boasting majority market share with £182 million of sales while Sotheby’s is claiming a higher average price by realising £155.5 million for half as many lots. In terms of artists, though, there was only one winner: Picasso, by a mile.
One hundred and sixty-four, or 15 per cent, of the lots offered were by him, and only seven, mostly drawings, didn’t sell. Cumulatively, Picasso registered just over £127 million of sales, or a remarkable 37.4 per cent of the week’s total.
Prices ranged from £800 for a ceramic tile to £49.8 million, the most ever paid for a painting at auction in Europe, for a jagged, highly coloured, 1939 portrait of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter (above).
Picasso, Mousquetaire et Nu Assis, 1967, sold to Harry Smith of Gurr Johns for £13.7 million (estimate £12-18 million), the top lot of Christie’s sale
No artist dominates their sector as Picasso does. Challenged only by Andy Warhol in the contemporary market, Picasso has been the market leader for as long as most people can remember.
Until the sale of the $450 million Leonardo last November, Picasso held the top price at auction with the $179 million achieved for his 1955 painting Women of Algiers (version O), in 2015. His stock is as blue-chip as you can get.
Melanie Clore, an independent art advisor who was worldwide co-chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art department for 16 years and its chairman of Europe between 2011-2016, cites the Stanley J. Seeger sale in 1993 as the moment when «Picasso fever» became clear.
In a move considered incredibly risky, Sotheby’s had offered all 88 of Seeger’s Picassos in one sale, (unless they’re very sure of demand, most high-end auctions will try to limit the number of pieces by one artist to two or three per sale), but, in the end it sold every one.
Pablo Picasso, Le Matador, 1970, estimate £14-18 million, sold to Harry Smith of Gurr Johns for £16.5 million at Sotheby’s
During the boom of the late Eighties, the new buyers driving the Picasso market were Japanese, now they are often Chinese. However, last week, Chinese bidders were mostly outgunned on the top Picasso lots by a quiet Englishman in a grey suit named Harry Smith, who bid without flinching until he won 13 Picassos (including that 1939 portrait of Walter) for £112.5 million.
Smith is the chairman of the art advisory and valuation service Gurr Johns. He bought the company in the 1980s, when it was housed above a shoe shop in Maidstone, for the £100 he had in his pocket and a £39,900 bank loan. Today, it values about $10 billion of art, antiques and luxury items each year.
Among the sales he has advised on are the record £41 million Monet water-lily painting sold at Christie’s in 2008, and the £48 million Gustav Klimt flower garden painting sold at Sotheby’s last year.
Less is known about his buying activities, which are usually conducted behind the scenes. So it was all the more remarkable that he was seen spending so much in public last week.
Although he will not be drawn on exactly who he was buying the Picassos for, he says the artist is a good investment “because he is modern; he is a widely recognised brand; and the supply of his work is plentiful [he made some 10,000 paintings and 6,000 drawings]”. He was also, of course, a genius.
Sadly for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, neither had any of Picasso’s paintings from 1932, the focus of Tate Modern’s blockbuster Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, opening this week. Paintings from this pivotal year, particularly a series of sensually curvaceous portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter, have been Picasso’s most popular on the market in recent times.
Picasso, Le Repos, 1932
Included in the exhibition, for instance, is Le Rêve, which Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn sold to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen for $155 million in 2013. As is Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for $106.5 million in 2010.
Neither of these is for sale (at least officially). However, Phillips has a 1932 painting of Walter which is tipped to sell this week for far more than its £12 million estimate.
And looking ahead to May in New York, Christie’s Rockefeller sale includes a $70 million Rose period work and Sotheby’s a 1932 portrait of Walter titled Le Repos.
A profile of her upturned sleeping head, this painting is perhaps an accurate reflection of Picasso prices, having increased by more than ten per cent a year over the last 25 years. In 1993 it sold for $2.46 million. In May it is estimated to fetch up to $35 million — maybe more if Harry Smith makes an appearance.