Drawings are a Buy

In a recent post I argued that Picasso drawings are on a tear.  In this one I’ll offer reasons why they are still a buy, especially relative to other Picasso mediums, as well as relative to drawings by other “modern masters”.  (Before we begin, in case you’re wondering whether I have any conflict of interest, I should submit that in this case I have no particular disclosures to make except for the general case, which is that we own and offer for sale Picassos in all of these mediums.)

The art market is in a state of perpetual disequilibrium, as we have earlier discussed, and the Picasso market is no exception.  But among Picassos, the medium in which the disequilibrium is especially marked are his drawings and other unique works on paper (to which I’ll refer collectively simply as “drawings”).  I haven’t done a statistical analysis to support this contention–I’ll leave that to the economists such as Mei and Moses–but my experience strongly suggests that this is the case.  The reasons for it, I submit, are pretty straightforward: the relative scarcity of collectors of drawings, and that most of the individual drawings are relatively unknown.

Picasso created more drawings than works in all other mediums combined.  It might at first seem paradoxical, then, that his drawings are relatively unknown.  Here’s why.  His prints by contrast are very well known, at least among print collectors, for a collector has merely to invest in a single book (Bloch, Vol. I) to see the majority of his published prints , including almost all the important ones.  The avid Picasso print collector pours through this book repeatedly, commits many to memory, and make lists of his desiderata.  (You should see my weathered, 30-year-old copy, or perhaps you have one of your own.)   Picasso print collectors are also relatively plentiful, because of course the average original print is at the low end of the art market.

At the other extreme are collectors of paintings and sculptures.  These works, despite being at the high end of the market, nonetheless traditionally have attracted more collectors than have drawings.  Oils and sculptures stand out more, oils tend to be more colorful, and they are generally considered, by the artists and their fans alike, to be the apogee of the artists’ work.  It follows that oils, then, tend to be more widely reproduced in coffee table books than works in other mediums.  (For Picasso, typically one would find Le Repas Frugal in many such surveys, but few if any other prints and often not many more drawings.)  When an important oil hits the market, it is already well-known and pretty much sells itself, with or without the gallerina’s help.  A lesser-known but lovely oil might also fly off the proverbial shelf, if it is colorful and large enough to satisfy the collectors’ criteria.  With Picasso, there are so many more drawings than the few that collectors have seen, or remember seeing. There are tens of thousands of Picasso drawings.  So many books are required to catalog them (the most up-to-date series is Wofsy’s Picasso Project, which spans 23 volumes and which also includes Picasso’s paintings and sculptures).  I suppose most collectors have not purchased them all.   When a drawing first hits the market, even a very good one, its value has yet to be established.  The gallery’s price tag or the auction’s estimate could be helpful in this regard, but they could just as likely be a hindrance, because of the inherent conflict of interest (you’re buying but they’re selling) and because of the vicissitudes of setting the price (the piece may be worth way more or way less in the seller’s point of view than in yours, the seller may have paid too much, the seller might be desperate to sell, etc.)

Collectors line up when a famous Picasso print is on the block.  It is so hotly desired because it is so well-known.  An equally great or better drawing by contrast is likely relatively unknown and will often garner much less attention.  Don’t forget that some collectors lack taste and are therefore reliant upon their advisors or books.  But their advisors may be no more familiar with the drawing at hand, survey books will likely be silent on the matter, and catalogs raisonnés don’t editorialize.  Left to their own judgment, many collectors understandably will not part with their hard-earned money on something they’re less sure of.

The ability of the gallery or auction to play up the value of a piece should not be underestimated.  The recent $13.5M Picasso Rape that I blogged about is a very good drawing, but could it have achieved anything of the sort without the auction’s hype?  Consider the subject matter, let alone the alternatives.  I’ve seen many a Picasso drawing every bit as good or better (in my subjective opinion) sell for a tenth of that.  Heck, I’ve sold a better work (well, with the auction’s help, that is) for less than a tenth.  So now you say, “Sour grapes!”  Perhaps.  There may be a bit of that.  But not much–it’s not me, rather it’s that the chemistry of the art market, and drawings in particular, is in huge disequilibrium.  There’s plenty of runaway bidding at one extreme, which you are of course well-advised to avoid unless money means nothing to you.  At the other extreme, incredible bargains are quite rare, since Picasso, shall we say, has already been discovered.  Today there are still relative bargains aplenty, but they are mostly in Picasso drawings. There are many wonderful drawings that still sell in the 6 figures, and occasionally at the lower end of that spectrum, must-haves, really, if you’ve got the scratch.  They may often be underpriced today compared to drawings  by, say, Matisse or Schiele, to name but two whose better drawings routinely fetch 7 figures, but that is only because Picasso was so much more prolific (and, presumably, because Germans naturally want to collect their own).  But the relative availability of Picasso drawings, I predict, will not last, as more and more disappear into the black holes of museum collections.  In time, I expect Picasso drawings to command a few more zeros, not unlike this month’s nearly $50M Rafael.  But for now, dear reader, it is the time to buy and hold.

The Missing Link?


Costume du manager français pour le ballet “Parade”(Costume
of the French Manager for the Ballet “Parade”, 1917)

This small (23 cm) but complex cubist ink drawing and wash is a delightful discovery, the “missing link” between the preparatory, simple sketches, mostly line-drawings, all of which are in the collection of the Musée Picasso Paris, and the finished costume for the French Manager in the ballet “Parade”.  The costume itself was destroyed and is now known only from the period black-and-white photographs.


An example of the earlier drawings

The present drawing is the culmination of all of the earlier ones, presumably the final step before Picasso (or his craftsmen) created the actual costume:


The French Manager’s costume

“Parade” was the first of several ballets for which Picasso created the costumes and set design as well as the occasion of his first trip to Italy, where he met Olga.  This previously unpublished drawing came from the collection of Serge Lifar, a dancer whom Picasso befriended during the production of “Parade” and who later became a famous choreographer.  (The red mark at the bottom left corner is the collector’s unfortunate stamp on the verso, which has bled through this thin tracing paper.)  The sheet has a number of creases, as if Picasso had folded it up and stuck it in his pocket on his way to the set.  I doubt that Lifar, who collected a number of other Picassos, would have treated this one so irreverently.  This just sold at auction this week for the high estimate, which with the added buyer’s premium, came to just under $100K.

An unbelievable bargain?  The drawing’s provenance is guaranteed by the auction house, as they sold Lifar’s estate, including a number of other Picassos.  The rest of them were prints, which look right, except one very small but interesting gouache, which to my eye is unquestionably real:


Homme à la guitare, 1920

But the Parade drawing bears too close a resemblance to the photograph.  Doesn’t it strike you as odd that the actor is in the exact same position as the drawing?  Could the master have stooped to tracing?  I tend to doubt it.  Why would he bother, given his facility for drawing, not to mention his self-respect.  Having now compared the costume to the drawing carefully, I really do think the drawing is a tracing of the photo for many reasons.  (One of them is that the ratio between the height and width of the costume and actor in the photo, and that of the drawing is off by only 2.5%, arguably within the margin of error of a tracing.  Another has to do with the hesitant line of the drawing, uncommon for this master.)  It is conceivable that Picasso created this drawing after the photograph had been developed, but I doubt it.

This drawing is small and it’s not pretty.  I just find it a very interesting cubist composition, given that there’s nothing even close to it in or outside the museum walls.

Or is there?  Perhaps there is a second missing link. Note the design element in the top right corner that appears to lead off the sheet, and also the graphite line along the right edge of the sheet which would appear to have been drawn to guide the cutting of the sheet.  My guess is that the missing drawing is perhaps another sketch of the same French Manager, since none of the other characters in the play hold a cane or pipe.  So let me know when you find it!

Picasso’s Estate Stamp Signatures

Question: Concerning the debate about signatures, I would like to ask a question about the use of the Picasso signature stamp. Could you…advise when and for what occasion this stamp was used?  H.J.I.

Answer: I’ve looked back at the “IS IT SIGNED?” chapter and realized that I should add this explanation there, but I’ll also blog it here for easier access.

A word about the estate stamp signatures: After Picasso’s death, his heirs authorized the creation of a stamp of Picasso’s signature, which his printer applied to various posthumous editions.  Since there are numerous unsigned editions, it may at first seem random that some prints were selected for this treatment but not others.  A likelier explanation is that the estate-stamped prints are simply those that Picasso had not released to his dealer, Galerie Louise Leiris, for distribution and sale.  At least that is the case with Caisse à remords (Box of Remorse), a raft of 45 etchings, drypoints, and aquatints whose creation spanned many years (1919 – 1955) but that were printed in 1961. Picasso kept the edition of 50 of each of these prints in a large case but never got around to signing them.  The most significant of the series is Tête de femme (B250; see WHAT’S NOT THERE), and a personal favorite of mine is Femme torero IV (B280; see http://ledorfineart.com/B280_femme_torero.html).

An old exhibition catalogue of this series from the now defunct Reiss-Cohen Gallery (NY; 1982) included an interesting insight into the odd title of this series, in the form of a quote from M. Maurice Jardot of Galerie Louise Leiris: “From the date when the engravings…were printed in 1961 until his death in 1973, Picasso was constantly occupied with other works and took no care of signing these prints.  He felt remorse and that is why he talked frequently about the case containing these engravings, calling it “Caisse à remords.”

There are two different estates stamps that I know of.  One of them was used most of the time, for example for all of Caisse à remords as well as the 156 Series. They are beautiful and generally darker and therefore more visible than his typically graphite pencil signatures.  But they do not add nearly as much value as an authentic pencil signature does to his prints. -Kobi

Drawings are on a Tear

Seems to me that drawings are on a tear, much as sculptures have been for the last several years.  Oils have long outpaced works on paper and 3-D objects, by more than I would have expected.  Of late however there has been a meteoric rise in the value of works in both of these laggards. Three very high-end sculptures have recently been sold (the $100M+ Giacometti, and a Matisse and a Modigliani each topping $40M), which is a big step in correcting this market disparity.  (Picasso sculptures have topped out at just under $30M, more because of lack of availability than desirability, I believe.)  With drawings, it might be too soon to be conclusive, given the small number of recent high-end sales.  But yesterday’s sale of a small black chalk Raphael drawing for just under $48M, in addition to the small black-and-white Picasso work on paper described in my last post (The Results are In ), are hopefully the beginning of a long-overdue trend.  This 37 cm Raphael, as you may have heard, is a world’s auction record for a work on paper: