Wuzon da Block?

Starter Picasso

Nature morte à la cruche, 1937

Time was you could still land a nice Picasso canvas for under a mil. Today, with few exceptions, you’re looking at a cool 2 or 3 mil, or then some, for a starter Picasso.  Yet, more likely than not, what you get for your money is uninspiring.

So along comes this offering at Christie’s London.  I must say that the first time I leafed through their online catalogue, this painting didn’t catch my eye.   That first time around, I had judged it merely as one would a still life and, as such, I readily dismissed it.  After all, Picasso certainly painted many more beautiful and more clever still lifes.  But when my printed catalogue arrived, I gave it a closer look.  Now I saw a lovely, colorful painting in which Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse is depicted not once but twice, as the bowl of fruit in the foreground and also in the drawing-within-a-painting hanging on the wall.  The jug struck me as rather masculine, convincing me that it represents a male suitor, Picasso to the fruit bowl’s Marie-T.  Of course the master’s ego had to endure an ample belly, a small sacrifice in the service of art.  As if resigned to this fate, he highlighted his contour in white.   Well, there are other Picasso portraits of women à  la pitchers, two of them quite renowned, but offhand I can’t think of another artwork in which the pitcher is the doppelgänger for the Maitre himself.  (By the way, the Christie’s catalogue caption is well-crafted and informative and totally worth reading.  And its author agrees with me, at least on most points.)

There is an auction history for this piece.  It BI’ed in 2005 on an estimate of 600-800K USD, but it did sell in 2010, not the very best of times, for just over 1.1M USD.

All things considered, this is a pretty nice entry-level oil, and, at 56 cm, not even a small one at that.  And it’s signed, for what that’s worth.  All this, on an estimate of 800,000 – 1,200,000 GBP (1,213,040 – 1,819,560 USD).  Not bad for a starter Picasso….

Best in Show



This time my “best in show” pick is a clear choice, despite the fact that its estimate is more than an order of magnitude lower than the top estimates.  The “show” to which I’m referring is this week’s battle between the giants, Christie’s and Sotheby’s.  The battlefield is London.   As the forces prepare for battle, perhaps you’ve noticed a stalwart young man among them, the Tête de Jeune Homme (Head of a Young Man), a full-sized drawing and a paragon of Picasso’s Neoclassical Period.  Picasso created it with black conté crayon, my favorite medium in drawing because of the glistening, bold mark it produces.  I must disclose that I haven’t traveled to London to view this drawing in the flesh, nor does its line appear particularly bold or glistening in the catalogue photos.  Never mind, even if it were charcoal or pencil, that wouldn’t detract from its magnificence.


On average, I wasn’t all that impressed with the fare from the storied Krugier collection that Christie’s NY presented last fall.  Presumably he sold some of his best works over the years, and perhaps his daughter is keeping others for herself.  But Sotheby’s, which snagged a far smaller piece of the Krugier action, got this drawing, the best work between both of the houses.


Earlier in the same evening sale is an Ingres drawing, Three Studies for the Figure of Stratonice, of which the following is a detail:


The Ingres is beautiful, but the juxtaposition aptly demonstrates why Ingres will be remembered as a prelude to Picasso.  Ingres was an equally great draftsman, but the profound interest that Picasso’s work inspires is the result not only of Picasso’s equally great draftsmanship but also because of his portrait’s stylistic complexity.  This deceptively simple contour drawing is actually a blend of a fine neoclassical portrait with Picasso’s sculptural style in which by sleight of hand he fashions a two-dimensional artwork seemingly out of solid stone.   The off-center placement of the figure is also crucial, as Picasso promotes the negative space upon which the subject’s eyes gaze as a principal part of the composition.

Steal of the Season

Christie’s just completed its first Shanghai auction.  It included but one Picasso, a late oil on panel, but it was a doozie:


1969 Homme assis 56.6 x 28.7cm $1,906,245 Shanghai 2013
Homme assis, 1969

This musketeer brought in 1,906,245 USD on an estimate of 742,693 to 1,023,266 USD. Although many late Picasso paintings are oversized, about as large as a door, the better ones typically fetch 5 to 10 times this amount.  But I’m not one to overweight size relative to quality when determining value.  As for the quality of the painting, assuming late Picasso appeals to you, you may find yourself agreeing with me that it is wonderful.  I could rhapsodize at length about the style and artistic accomplishments of this hilarious musketeer, but I’ll spare you–for now.  Suffice it to say, despite the fact that the art market is on fire, yet another wonderful Picasso has slipped through the cracks.  Perhaps the take-home is to keep an eye on uncustomary venues.

I trust the new owners will enjoy the company of their charming new houseguest.   Although the auction season has just begun, I’m climbing way out on a limb by awarding the lucky buyers the coveted Steal of the Season award.  (That and 3 bucks might buy you a pot of green tea.)


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!

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:

In the Eye of the Storm

My hats off to the Yanks!  You are truly irrepressible!  These have been the toughest days any region of the country has faced since NY was hit by 9/11 and New Orleans and vicinity by Katrina.  As a result, the NY Stock Exchange was closed for two days this week, but it took but one day for the art market to resume in full force, at least uptown where the floodwaters were not as severe.  Auctions this week went on as scheduled or were delayed by no more than a day.  Downtown, where the depredations of the storm were more severe, repairs are already underway.  It is truly amazing how quickly you jumped back and resumed business as usual.  What a testament to your incredible resilience!

As an aside, the lightning-fast rebound of the art market could also be viewed as a testament to the depth of the commitment to collecting.  This can only be attributed to the profound meaning and joy with which art enriches our lives and makes one’s pain so much more bearable.

Perhaps the only good thing that could be said about Sandy is the unexpected love-fest she engendered between Barack and the conservative heavyweights Bloomberg and Chris Christie  (and, if not of similar importance but certainly vital to the individuals involved, the great boon to NY conservators as a result of the Chelsea flood).

Best wishes to you all as you recover and rebuild!

Wusson da Block

Tête de femme (1952)

There are a number of lovely Picasso paintings and works on paper in NY this season, but the one that stands out the most is the above oil painting of Françoise at Christie’s.  Although Picasso created quite a number of beautiful drawings and prints of his new lover, his paintings of her were generally not among his best.  This painting is that much more remarkable, because it certainly ranks as one of the finest paintings of Françoise, arguably one of the two best.  The other one, La femme-fleur (The Woman-Flower), is in the subject’s private collection.  (In the end, it seems Françoise didn’t fare that badly….)

Picasso must have been pleased with this painting.  The day before he had painted this smaller oil:

…and he must have known he was on to something.  Then he refined his thoughts with the painting at hand, and also made this style du jour more widely available by recreating it in a large aquatint format, La Femme a la Fenêtre, one of his very finest prints, in an edition of 73:

Another beautiful portrait of Françoise was featured last May at Sotheby’s with the same estimate as the current lot, $4-6M:

Tête de femme (1946)

At 55 cm, it was a bit bigger, and it sold for just over the high estimate.

The only argument that can explain the ridiculously low estimate for the current offering, other than the sellers’ desire to engender a feeding frenzy, is its comparatively small size (45.7 cm).  But the painting is limited to the woman’s head, and this head is at least as large as any of her best portraits.  Still, for those who don’t grade art like real estate–that is, in terms of size, this painting should soar much higher, easily triple the high estimate.

This smallish painting is reminiscent of the even smaller but at least as wonderful Marie-Thérèse oil that I blogged about last season.  At just under $10M, that one went above the high estimate, but not nearly what I think it’s worth.  In that case, size and simplicity worked in favor of the buyer. In the present case, simplicity should no longer be a mitigating factor in anyone’s eyes (it never is in mine), but we’ll see what happens this time with respect to size.

Before we leave the subject of paintings, for those of you who may be unacquainted with La femme-fleur, the most important portrait of Françoise bar none, here’s a photo:

La femme-fleur (1946)

If you’re not quite in the above price bracket, there’s also a lovely contour drawing of this muse, well-priced and full size, at Christie’s the very next day (estimate $3-400K):

Portrait de femme

For those of us for whom price is really no object, in the Sotheby’s evening sale there is this serene masterpiece:

Nature morte aux tulips (1932)

It is from the same celebrated year, 1932, as the current Picasso auction record ($106.5M):

Femme nue, feuilles et buste

Though the painting at hand is estimated at $35-50M, it is only a bit smaller (130 cm vs. 162 cm) than the reigning Marie-Thérèse and is, in my opinion, at least as wonderful.  (Frankly, in my mind there is no contest.)  There’s so much that can be said about this painting, but for now I just want to call attention to his speed.  It is well-known that Picasso was a lightning-fast artist.  But this is the only instance of which I’m aware in which he recorded the time it took for him to paint a given work. The stretcher, according to the Sotheby’s, is inscribed “H 9 à 11 1/2  Hs”, that is, 9 AM to 11:30 AM.  Picasso had apparently impressed himself, not to mention the rest of us.

A Picasso for $14?

Check out the ABC News story for which yours truly was interviewed, “A Picasso for $14? Ohio Man Buys Print in Thrift Store”. Well, I guess I’m just not satisfied with 15 seconds of fame–I’d like to catapult to 20! So here’s what the kind journalist edited out of my comments. Despite all the problems with the poster, and particularly with the signature, that she quoted in that story, the journalist made it sound like I had concluded the signature was fake and maybe even the linocut. Actuallly, all in all, I imagine that the print is real, the red signature was distorted photographically to give it a pinkish hue, and it is just an unusually unevenly faded but authentic signature. And, since she didn’t mention the proviso, then I will restate that of course these observations are based on a review of digital images, which is not the same as examining the art in the flesh.

Plus, someone inexplicably cropped the majority of the signature illustrated in the story. Here’s a close-up of the whole autograph:

Everyone seems to be panning the quality of this artwork and urging its new owner, Zachary Bodish, to sell it. He, on the other hand, has been getting attached to it. (Sound familiar?) Well, though I wouldn’t buy this poster, there are some nice things one can say about it. For example, there is its amusing feature of the small annular marks in the corners and in the middle of the edges.  Picasso, up to his usual visual jokes, intends these marks to represent the nails used to affix this poster ad to the wall. In all his tens of thousands of artworks, there are only two other occasions of which I’m aware in which he depicted such faux-nails, both linocut posters advertising two other Vallauris ceramic exhibits of his the preceding year. Not that a single nail ever touched this hallowed poster board–even such lowly posters as this, yet signed and numbered, were more likely distributed in Paris by his dealer Kahnweiler.  

See you at Salvation Army! -Kobi

Picasso Print Breaks the $5 Million Barrier

I guess it paid off to stick it in their evening sale.  Yes, folks, last night’s La femme qui pleure, I at Christie’s NY went for $5,122,500, thereby setting the world’s record for a print by any artist.  It also more than doubled the previous record for a Picasso print at auction, an unsigned impression of La Minotauromachie at just under $2M last year in London.  Wait just a minute—I have to stop and catch my breath….

What’s on the Block

There are some nice offerings at the fall auctions in NY, but before we get to the paintings, it is noteworthy that for the first time, at least of which I’m aware, prints have made one of the storied evening sales.  Both their low estimates exceed the million $ barrier, and both are at Christie’s, consisting of an unsigned Minotauromachie and a signed impression of  La Femme qui Pleure, I (Bl.1333), the final (7th) state:

What’s even more remarkable, it seems to me, is the unusually large number of really nice paintings, eleven in the Christie’s evening sale alone.

At Sotheby’s, there’s the fascinating 1927 Guitare accroché au mur:

and the huge late Picasso painting, one of the nicer ones, L’Aubade (The Dawn Serenade, 1967):

At Christie’s (in chronological order), there’s the small 1919-20 Guéridon devant une fenêtre aux volets fermés:

a serviceable Marie-Therese, the 1935 Femme endormie:

a decent Dora, the 1938 Femme assise:

a very nice still life, more colorful than many wartime images, the 1944 Citrons et verre:

a good animal combat, the 1965 Homard et chat sur la plage:

and, last, the 1968 Mousquetaire buste, an amusing piece and a good value for the money:

There are also a couple of wonderful, full-sized drawings, one at Christie’s, the 1938 Figure féminine assise:

the other at Sotheby’s, the 1969 Homme au turban et nu couché, (PP69.399, catalogue # misprinted in their ecatalogue):

Let the games begin!