STUFF ON A TABLE
Let’s just start out with the premise that Picasso was the greatest still life painter of all time, just as of so many other genres. OK, I won’t argue if you go with van Gogh instead—his are breathtaking, too, and you’re entitled to your own opinion. Or we might agree that van Gogh was the greatest of his era, and Picasso of his. But I know there’s some sort of consensus in the making, so no need to belabor the specifics.
Nor is it easy to compare a Picasso still life from one of his periods to that of another—the styles are so radically different and so many pieces of each period are truly masterpieces that it’s hard to choose the best among so many superlatives. The teens and the twenties each had their masterpieces, but so did the thirties. You’d probably have to say those were the three greatest decades, as far as the still-life is concerned. (Some might say those were Picasso’s three best decades in general, but then we’d at least have to add the aughts to the list.) The wartime images also have their great still lifes. And the post-War Mediterranean years are amazing. OK, and Late Picasso brought us some wonderful works. Yes, the stuff-on-a-table series was a central vein that ran throughout Picasso’s long career, with the relative exception of his first years. So many still lifes—so hard to choose.
But any way you cut it, you’d have to agree that the chances of one of Picasso’s very best still lifes to come on the block, and at a reasonable estimate at that, are pretty slim, right? So I’m happy to report that one of the very best is on the block next week. It is certainly stronger than the two Picasso comps included in the sale catalogue, not to mention the van Gogh included therein as well. Though, parenthetically, you could consider the background to be Picasso’s nod to Starry Night—on acid.
Yeah, this painting is certainly one of my all-time faves, so it’s hard for me to understand why the estimate is so low. Unless of course that decision was predicated on general market jitters. If I have the inclination and if I find the time, maybe I’ll offer a few reasons why. But there’s probably no need—this painting speaks for itself. Right now, in the interest of time, I’m content just to point you in the direction of this imminent sale (Christie’s London, February 3), that is, if you hasn’t jumped out at you already.
Q: I have very much enjoyed reading your blog and have learned a lot from you. I can understand that you are very particular in your tastes and views about what is great Picasso work. I have even emailed you and appreciate your kindness in that you always even reply back. I consider you one of the leading U.S. art authorities on Picasso.
But I think you do not realize that you are a little intimidating, almost like a Picasso snob. I started by collecting Chagall and then began to branch out in my taste. Your blog helped me to better understand Picasso’s work. But sadly I’m not rich; my wealthier friends would be shocked at what I’ve spent on art. The only art they ever framed and collected were their kids’ elementary school work.
Not one Picasso I’ve collected has made it into your blog; in part because the prices I can afford run under $10,000 for a hand signed lithograph and under $1,200 for a plate or unsigned work.
To my total surprise I have now bought 4 Picassos, all at very affordable prices. Picasso’s multi-color “le picodor” and its 3 brothers I count as one. There are a lot of them available and affordable by people like me. I got lucky and got a break on the Hand signed le vieux roi, when I expected to buy the plate signed, which would cost a little over my budget at $2,000-2,5000. These are affordable because there are enough copies 1,000 plate & 200 hand signed. So too, although I wanted 1 of the 50 Hand signed dj dessins DELUXE ed., it went for $10-12,000 at least. I settled for 1 of the 1,000 books with dj for under $1,000 [Dessins d’un demi-siècle] that are plate signed. I intend to have the double picture framed.
So, why am I telling you all this? Art is expensive and most, even well-to-do people don’t buy it; even though they’ll go to museums here or when they travel abroad.
Of course your clients probably can afford what is in your blog. But for most of us who collect “real” art, the very expensive prices so many galleries charge cater to clients for whom price is clearly irrelevant. They tend to have signed and unsigned pieces at truly ridiculous prices….
If I bought what you thought worthy, my entire budget would be gone after I bought 1 piece! By watching my budget, I hope over time I can afford to collect much of what I want, even if it is unsigned work.
I sincerely hope you realize that there is a good size group of collectors like me. Don’t misunderstand me, I return to reading your blog periodically, especially when I am considering a Picasso. So, please keep writing! Thank you in advance for your understanding.
A: Ha! So now I’m a Picasso snob! That’s funny. Not to worry—I didn’t take offense at all. I’m not about to dispute the charge, though I’m also not quite ready to plead guilty. I’d rather just address the substance of your message, since you make some good points.
As I’m sure you know, there are of course plenty of reasons why things are priced the way they are, which I’ve explored in my collecting guide and its original print ratings. But to the extent that it is useful to have a collecting guide for Picasso’s prints, it follows that it would be useful for someone to compile a schema such as mine that addresses their least expensive stratum. I agree with you that there are likely to be a lot of collectors who hunt within this price range, as you do. Bear in mind, however, that I set out to rate the artistic merits of Picasso’s prints subjectively, as I see them, and without regard to price. So it is no wonder, to the extent that my preferences match the market’s (there’s but a partial overlap here, as you may have also noted), that I, too, would not bother with many of the prints the print market doesn’t favor. I don’t feel inspired at present to rise to that task—maybe later. But thanks anyway for your valuable comments.
I appreciate your preference for acquiring a number of lesser-priced artworks for the cost of a single, more expensive piece. Though one could just as easily argue it the other way around—why not save up one’s marbles for one spectacular work than dole them out for a number of lesser pieces? Apart from the fact that one picture won’t go as far in filling up your walls as would a number of pieces—of similar size—the rest is of course just a matter of personal preference….
By the way, I trust you’re aware that our prices are nothing like the “truly ridiculous prices” that “so many galleries charge”, but still it sounds like they are mostly out of your range. At present at least—remember us once you’ve hit the jackpot!
I’ve enjoyed corresponding with you, and I think I’ll blog this last exchange, as I agree with you that there must be like-minded collectors such as you out there, so thanks again!
Your friendly Picasso snob
Q: I have been reading your blog re Picasso and his prints. You say that Picasso didn’t use pochoir, but I have read on other websites that he actually made 200 of them. Who is correct? -Sue G
A: I can see why you would find this confusing, especially because that fancy French term sounds so very artsy. But pochoir (French for “stencil”) is a reproductive technique, so of course Picasso didn’t use it to create art. Picasso made original art. Other people reproduced some of his artworks using the pochoir technique, and at times he signed these reproductions by hand—for a fee. Although these are by no means original artworks, they do have decorative value (though nothing like the beauty of the original art on which they were based), and they also have some monetary value in today’s market (though, again, nothing like their original precedents), not uncommonly reaching even the low five digits.
As an aside, pochoirs and other forms of reproduction have very little personal appeal, and I would not consider acquiring them. There are too many original Picasso artworks to be had for the same money, though one would often be foregoing brightly colored reproductions for black-and-white original prints. But if colored Picassos are what you want with no regard for originality, why not buy a poster and keep the change? You could even call your acquisition an affiche, French for poster. Sounds more valuable already, doesn’t it?
For a somewhat broader discussion, see the relevant parts of the “Collecting Pitfalls” chapter in my guide to collecting Picasso prints: http://ledorfineart.com/Chapter_13.html.
But first, a little pop quiz: Which one of these does not belong? Below are examples of two original Picasso gouaches of 1920 entitled Pierrot et Arlequin and a pochoir reproduction. Can you pick out the originals?
I might as well start with the disclaimers, since they run both wide and deep: I’m not an economist. My crystal ball is just as murky as anyone’s. I don’t give investment advice. I am not a certified financial planner. Need I go on? Despite this rather all-encompassing disclosure, I nonetheless get a steady stream of questions about the investment value of art, which I then need to address. The typical questions range from whether art is a good investment vehicle in general, to general questions about Picassos as investment, to questions about the investment value of a specific Picasso.
In this blog, I have twice previously addressed the subject of art as investment, first in 2004 (http://ledorfineart.com/blog/art-as-investment/) and again in 2010, when I merely referred to (and explained a bit about) the Mei Moses Fine Art Index (http://ledorfineart.com/blog/art-as-investment-the-mei-moses®-fine-art-index/ ). Now time has passed, the Crash has come and gone, and an update to those posts is overdue. There is clearly more that needs to be said. So today I would like to revisit the question of art as investment. It’s possible I have erred in my opinions and the future will prove me wrong, since past performance is not predictive, as they say. Nonetheless, I am sure you would agree that you, too, should at least be thinking about these issues and forming your own opinions. Speaking of your opinions, this is one post for which I would particularly welcome your comments, as the degree of uncertainty about my own convictions in this matter are much higher then when say, I am evaluating the authenticity, beauty, and worth of a given Picasso. Anyway, what follows are the several guiding principles and beliefs that inform my behavior as a collector and as an art investor, as well as of course as an art dealer and advisor.
The Mei Moses Fine Art Index, the subject of my last post on this subject, does not seem to have appreciably altered its conclusion since then, that fine art has appreciated as much as equities over the last 50 years. Sure, it lagged behind the S & P’s rebound after the Crash of 2008, but then again, during the Crash it lost far less than the S & P, almost an order of magnitude less. (Mei and Moses seem to be addressing just unique works. But even if they included print sales in their analysis, their overall numbers would be little affected, since prints are relatively inexpensive and therefore don’t amount to much of the overall market value.) Picassos (and the other major Modern and Post-War artists) have steadily appreciated over time. And from what I’ve observed and read, fine art was, significantly, the first asset class to rebound after the Crash. So I view art as a relatively stable, if illiquid, investment vehicle, provided one acquires established artists that aren’t about to go away. As a corollary, it is wise to recall the following statistic: 98% of the contemporary artists in the current primary market will be forgotten in a decade.
The illiquidity of art is at least partially balanced by its apparently decreased volatility, as compared with securities. (It is particularly timely to address the volatility parameter, in view of the recent wide gyrations in the stock market at the time of this writing.) Volatility seems particularly diminished, and is also more easily analyzed, within the original print category, as opposed to unique works. No two unique works are entirely comparable, so definitive analysis is limited to sale pairs (à la Mei Moses, when the same artwork has been sold two or more times in the recorded past). Sale pairs however represent but a small subset of unique art sales. Not so in the world of original prints, where luckily the market has already done the work for you.
Art may be illiquid, but one can mitigate risk with the realization that some artworks are more illiquid than others. One form of mitigation is the self-discipline of focusing on trophy art, especially when real money is at stake. We love our Picasso goat skulls (we have two at present), and I’m prepared for the eventuality that they will never sell, at least not without a steep discount. We also have a variety of faint line drawings and prints which can’t be seen at a distance, including some which are rather small. They are powerful and beautiful, and we’re delighted to have them. They didn’t set us back all that much, and we acquired them primarily so that we could look at them every day. But when it comes to forking over big bucks, however, it is often best to stick with a pretty face, and one that can be seen from across the room at that.
Trophy art merits special mention, because it is more likely to find a buyer quickly than less celebrated art. Everything eventually sells, as one of my early mentors pointed out. Though there is a buyer out there for everything, you however don’t want to have to wait for her. Better to buy a widely recognized and even celebrated piece, over which plenty of folks will predictably salivate. This is of course much more easily accomplished within the genre of original prints, because of the advantages of collecting prints over other media. These advantages principally derive from the consensus about which pieces are the best, and from the relative abundance of time to mull over and hunt them down. It is widely known which are the most famous prints. It is fairly easy to suss out which are the market’s all-time print favorites. (One place to start is by glancing at my Picasso print ratings (http://ledorfineart.com/forum.html). There has been some variability over time, but by and large the hierarchy of the top 20 (or 50) works has been pretty much cemented by now, presumably by the few dealers and collectors who grappled with such issues in the distant past, and the largely unflinching herd mentality that followed. By contrast, the hierarchy of many of the great drawings and paintings remains unestablished. Prints also attract more eyes (than available uniques) because they exist in multiples. Collectors are therefore more ready to pounce when a famous print becomes available than, say, an equally great drawing or painting. And the unique works are for the most part hidden in museums or in private collections and only surface sporadically and seemingly randomly. So the chances that one of your favorite drawings or paintings will become available to you are remote.
This is certainly not an argument against acquiring paintings and drawings, or sculptures or ceramics for that matter. Far from it. The flip side, of course, is the many compelling unique artworks that fairly beg for acquisition. And it appears that the art market rebound occurred primarily at the higher price levels. With the exception of Picasso ceramics, which have appreciated by leaps and bounds almost across the board, the lower price levels in Picasso’s art, chiefly his lesser prints and perhaps his lesser drawings, have not. The Crash seemed to have hollowed out the original print market, which, though it has been clawing its way back, has yet to reach its pre-Crash highs. The most hotly sought-after prints, especially the most expensive ones, have generally continued to do well, while much of the remainder of the print market has lagged a bit. But unlike the print market, acquiring unique artworks requires extra deliberation, not only because they are typically at higher price levels. For a unique work newly on the market, there is a relatively short opportunity to pull the trigger, yet it is likely the only opportunity you’d ever have to acquire that particular piece. By contrast, if you don’t buy a given print, the chances are far better that you’ll have other opportunities to do so. So with unique artworks, it really helps to know what you’re doing and to be prepared, by understanding the market in general and, in particular, the comparables for the given object of your desire.
Barring the possibility of a catastrophic global meltdown of course, I am not worried. I firmly believe that Picasso is by far the greatest artist of all time. The “bluest” of all blue chip artists is not about to go away. This is also a fortunate time to be collecting, since there are still many Picassos on the market. Yet plenty of museums are gobbling up his available art, and museums are like Roach Motels: they “check in, but they don’t check out.” That is true in France without exception, where museums are prevented by law from deaccessioning art, and it is relatively true everywhere else, where mostly just duds are sold, unless a particular museum is in deep trouble and has to sell off everything.
Moving on, let’s talk about death. Well, death, if there’s one good thing about it, compounds your art’s investment value. Too bad you won’t be around to enjoy that, but hopefully you’ll be leaving it to someone dear to you, who will. If you bought well to begin with, chances are your acquisition proved a good investment during your lifetime. If so, it should be an even better one for your heirs. According to current tax law, as I understand it, your heirs are taxed on the sale of the art they inherited on the difference between the sale price they achieved and its “stepped up” value, not what it cost the benefactor, but rather its appraised market value at the time you inherited it. And art has been known to mysteriously disappeared from the benefactor’s walls during his or her lifetime and magically reappeared on the walls of his or her heirs. (Not that I am encouraging that sort of thing.) But in case you hadn’t noticed, art investment as an inheritance tax-limiting vehicle is only of benefit if your art has appreciated since you got your hands on it, yet another reason to buy blue chip art and buy it well in the first place.
Here’s how that master of the succinct aphorism, Michael Pollan, might sum up, if he were an art person: Buy art. Not too much. Don’t overpay. And if you’re shelling out real money, make sure it’s both stunning and collectible.
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….
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 a great draftsman, but the profound interest that Picasso’s work inspires is the result not only of Picasso’s draftsmanship–at least Ingres’ equal–but also because of the stylistic complexity of Picasso’s portrait. Picasso’s deceptively simple contour drawing is actually a blend of a fine neoclassical portrait with his own 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.
Christie’s just completed its first Shanghai auction. It included but one Picasso, a late oil on panel, but it was a doozie:
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.)
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.
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:
“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:
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!
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: