There are those collectors who love the art no matter how small, and there are those who won’t look at a piece if it doesn’t reach a certain size.  This “column” is for the former.  Having addressed the merits of collecting small art works before, I would now like to further the discussion by drawing your attention to two highlights of this spring auction season.  They demonstrate both the highs and lows of collecting miniature Picassos.  Well, just the current high, not the real highs—some of those were most recently sold a couple of years ago (see Does Size Matter?).

First the low: the 1919 gouache and pencil, Nature morte à la guitare that went for a giveaway 60,000 Euro hammer price, or around $90,000 US all told:


This is one of many still lifes that Picasso created around this time, most of them smallish works on paper generally depicting a guitar on a table in front of a window, a view out the window of his Parisian apartment.  The most famous of these works on paper is in the Berggruen Museum.  We, too, have a beautiful one (Le Guéridon, 1920), in which the window is shown at its most abstract.  OK, the one at hand does not compare to either Berggruen’s or ours or to a number of other absolutely great ones in the Musée Picasso, either in terms of beauty, layers of meaning, humor, or size (this one is 12.7 cm or 5” in height).  But it is nonetheless a wonderful and amusing work in its own right.  At first it may appear deceptively simple.  But note how the blue sky cleverly becomes the table’s front legs and also the bottom half of the guitar, how the bottom of the curtains doubles as the back legs of the table, and how the head of the guitar is really an extension of the tabletop.  Interestingly, a cardboard and paper sculpture that was included in the monumental “Cubist Picasso” show at the Musée Picasso in 2007 is clearly related to the work at hand, though even smaller:

It’s apparently impossible to know whether the chicken came first or the egg, but each is a tour-de-force in different ways.  The humor of the legs of sky and curtain in the gouache does not translate into the three-dimensional work.  But the negative space of the body of the guitar is a pretty good joke in the sculpture, which is lost in the painting.  And, as if the void between the blue margins of the guitar were not enough, the guitar’s soundhole is an actual hole in the tabletop itself!  So each medium has its own advantages in best conveying the jester’s wit….

Here’s the high, Femme au ballon (Woman with a Balloon, 1929):


Ten years later, we find Picasso wading among his surrealist bathers in the South of France.  Although most of them are pencil drawings, almost all of which are in the collection of the Musée Picasso, there are a few large blockbuster museum paintings, notably the man-eater at the MOMA, Baigneuse assise au bord de la mer from the following year:


Because they’re almost all in museums, large or small, paper or oil, it is amazing to find any such work for sale, much less an oil.  So what if it’s small (21.4 x 11.5 cm, 8 3/8 x 4 ½”)—it’s nonetheless a fantastic piece.  Last week it fetched $649,700 all in, a respectable price in any market I should think, not just for this shaky one.   Or perhaps it’s not really shaky anymore.  We’ll see….

Before I sign off, here’s something strictly for your amusement—hopefully not your derision—a collage I made to console myself when I didn’t manage to bring the above gouache home:


The Auction Tango

A collector on whose behalf I am about to bid at auction just posed the following question: how many years back has the art market now retreated? To provide a satisfactory answer, one would have to do a formal statistical analysis, for which I have neither the tools, time, nor inclination.  Shooting from the hip, most people last November were saying 2006, and the market has certainly improved and partially stabilized since then, at least for the time being.  Having just perused representative auction catalogues from years past, I fear that 2005 is closer to the mark on average for Picasso prints.  But, mostly, I find it impossible to generalize in any meaningful way, because Picassos of different media and different price strata have behaved differently.  Rare and highly desirable prints still achieve high prices.  Good paintings still skyrocket (just look at the recent sales of Picasso’s musketeers on canvas), and great paintings still set world’s records (not for Picasso perhaps, but for Matisse, for example, as well as others).  And the YSL sale achieved such high prices that you’d never have known we were in a recession if that were the only economic indicator at which you looked.

And then, one must consider day-to-day, seemingly random variability. The art market could be easily reduced to facile analysis in the aggregate given number-crunching capabilities, but there is too much random variability to predict what will happen in any given case.  Just last month I bought a linocut (Femme accoudée, Bloch 922) on behalf of another collector last month for 80.5K at Christie’s NY, and but two days later another impression in similar condition sold for 62.5K at Sotheby’s.  So, go know!   I’ve seen plenty of instances in which the prices achieved at auction later in the week for other impressions of the same prints were both higher and lower than elsewhere in the same city a couple of days earlier.  But I was not proud of this turn of events, and wished that my crystal ball had been clearer.  Yet, had we behaved differently, the outcome of the first  auction would have changed, and the outcome of the  second auction could have changed.  That is, who knows where the bidding would have stopped for each of these impressions, had we dropped out of the bidding for the first one in favor of bidding on the  second!  In any event, my client was thankfully adult and was not disturbed, at least not visibly.  It also helped that we picked up a smaller linocut that day for a song (though that’s a long story).   Anyway, this day-to-day variability is certainly not unique to the current market.  All it takes is two to tango at auction, and there’s no telling in advance what any two people are capable of doing.

In the end, I feel it’s more a question of what you feel like paying, within reason, to put something on your wall, in proportion to how much you love it, and to what extent you are constrained, or choose to be constrained, by these uncertain economic times.

Never Too Late Picasso

Looks like we won’t have a chance to see the blockbuster Gagosian show.  By now I’ve however looked through the catalogue a couple of times and am deeply impressed by the assortment of wonderful paintings he amassed for it. (I’m not so big on late Picasso prints, with a few notable exceptions.)  John Richardson’s essay was of course also quite gratifying, as usual.  This is not at all a criticism, for as Richardson somewhere says, including drawings would have of necessity greatly broadened the scope of the show.  It would, I imagine, have been difficult to assemble a suitably representative cross-section of his late works on paper, since his output in the last few years was both vast and varied.  Much of it was also truly great, as great as anything that came before it.  I adore late Picasso paintings, or many of them anyway (I confess that it wasn’t always so, so you’re absolved if you, too, underwent an inner evolution before you, too, grew crazy about Late Picasso).  But I’ve long felt that if I were marooned on a desert island and could take along but one type of Picasso—admittedly a heart-wrenching choice, it would be a drawing.  Of course it would have to be a verdant desert island in the middle of a deep blue sea with plenty of flowers to provide color so I wouldn’t have to rely on the Picasso drawings to do so.

It’s not easy to get a handle on the late drawings.  The Online Picasso Project (OPP) is incomplete, and the most complete catalogue raisonné, Wofsy’s Picasso Project (PP), is comprised of small, black-and-white images, plus you have to buy them.  For those of you interested in an in depth survey of his late works (in all media, for that matter), the best way is to peruse them is by using both of these sources.  If you would like to limit your purchases, I’d recommend the books that include the years 1967-1972, which is when I feel Late Picasso peaked (although there are certainly many great Late Picasso drawings before then).  In order to do so, you’d need at least the last two volumes in the PP series, which span all but the first of these years (The Sixties, III: 1968-1969 and The Final Years: 1970-1973).

If you finish Richardson’s essay and are hungry for more, for further reading I’d like to recommend Picasso: The Last Years, 1963-1973, by Gert Schiff.   I think very highly of Schiff’s essay on Late Picasso, which he penned in the early ‘eighties, long before Late Picasso was fashionable, much less understood by most of us.