Hijinks in Hong Kong

Hi, Kobi!   Just some comments on the Art Basel Hong Kong show.  Hmmm…where to start?  I met several top art dealers from NY, London, Milan, Paris, etc. who deal in Picasso.  I saw some nice Picassos (and some very disturbing Contemporary Art).  My overall impression is that the people who regularly buy from these dealers must be incredibly naive.  I won’t bore you with all the conversations, just a sampling.

“Provenance? It’s in Zervos, which is a catalogue raisonné (spoken slowly apparently so my slow mind can grasp the French words)…that’s all the proof you need.  If it’s in there it’s genuine.  Here, let me show you a copy of the page.”

“But what if it’s a fake?”  (Apparently few have inquired beyond “Zervos…maybe because there is no letter after Z.)
“We’ve been in business for 20 years.”

I’m thinking, OK, let’s try this another way:  “How about a Certificate of Authenticity?”
From the look on his face, I think few have gone this far as it means an implied question of his integrity.

“I wouldn’t do that…people could attach it to a fake.”

But couldn’t they do the same with your invoice, so what’s the problem?

He’s ready for me:  “Besides it’s the law in the U.S. – I have to guarantee the goods are as sold.”

Before I can respond to his circular logic, he’s looking for a more pliable buyer:  “Ahh, excuse me but I see the Sultan of Brunei, one of my closest BFFs.”

Then I ran into an art dealer whom I had met before who was pushing his expert from Paris and advising me not to ask too many questions or the Parisian would withhold the opportunity to buy his Picassos.  When I asked why that was, he pointed to a man. “See that guy, that’s  one of the richest dudes in HK. He has 3 yachts and he buys from my guy to get the best deals.”

So I have two quick flashes: 1. Not only can’t he possible use 3 yachts but the minute after he bought them, they depreciated more than the national budget of Kenya.  2. If he has that much stupid money, what the hell does he care if he saved a few quid-–isn’t he into the aesthetics of the artwork?  Dr. Watson…something seems out of his kilt here.

Then I encountered another HK dealer whom I had also previously met on my last trip who just said flatly that I wasn’t their kind of client…apparently I knew too much about Picasso….

Moving on…I met with a good framer.  I’ll scan and send you their brochure.

So that’s about it…the Good (Picassos), the Bad (contemporary art) and the Ugly (Ovid’s Metamorphosed Used-Car Salesmen, aka High Art Dealers)…



Sell Out

Picasso + Zervos

The Christian Zervos 33-volume catalogue raisonné of Picasso paintings, drawings and sculptures has just been newly reprinted, a collaborative marketing effort between the original publisher, Cahiers d’Art, and Sotheby’s.  The set will soon be available for $20,000 (gulp!).  In a promotional video distributed by Sotheby’s, Staffan Ahrenberg of Cahiers d’Art states, “It contains over 16,000 images, and it has become the most important reference work on Picasso.”

Well, yes and no.  For those antiquarians among us who are still stuck on the original catalogue raisonné, it lends a bit of cache if your Picasso is illustrated in Zervos, though it does not really add value and is by no means necessary to establish authenticity.  But Picasso made many more artworks than those in Zervos, with estimates running as high as 50,000.  Not counting his approximately 3000 prints editioned on paper and in ceramic, that still leaves the majority of his works that escaped Zervos’ attention.

Nonetheless, Sotheby’s Philip Hook proclaims, “The appearance of a new edition of Zervos is incredibly exciting because it gives such a unique insight into how Picasso worked.  Picasso’s work is recorded in such detail in these volumes, and there is absolutely no substitute for them.”

Really?  What about Alan Wofsy’s Picasso Project?  This 23-volume series published over the last few years in San Francisco (the final 3 volumes are expected soon) may have been unauthorized by the Picasso family and Cahiers d’Art, but it has added over a third more artworks than Zervos.  Plus, Wofsy continues to actively update his archives and has already published several 2nd editions.  Not to mention that the collection is available for a small fraction of the price of either the original or the reprinted Zervos.

John Richardson also weighed in on the new edition: “We’ve all been waiting desperately for someone to pick up on it.  And the fact that there is no color in Zervos, I think, is an enormous asset, because I’d much rather have a very accurate black-and-white image of a painting or a drawing than have some sort of garish reproductions.”

Like every Picasso collector I know, I’d love to see a catalogue raisonné in color.  I don’t know about you, but if I were ready to blow 20 grand on a bunch of illustrations of artworks, I’d insist they be in color.  Sure, I’d rather the colors be as accurate as possible–the colors in books often diverge from the actual colors significantly.  But take a look at any contemporary Sotheby’s catalogue–the colors are pretty darn good.  You’d think that Sotheby’s would hold its book-publishing standards as high as those of its catalogues….

Actually, there was an online catalogue raisonné, mostly in color, of Picassos in all mediums, that was endeavoring to post all of his works.  It was replete with descriptions and discussions of the artworks, extensive day-by-day biographical information, and many scholarly articles.  The Online Picasso Project was begun by Professor Enrique Mallen and had already assembled over 20,000 Picassos.  And it was free!

Red hot!  Red hot!  Get them before they sell out!  And hurry!  25% off for pre-ordering in 2013!

A Desperate Thought (for Desperate Times)

1920 Guéridon (title?)


Recently I enjoyed a discussion concerning Picasso’s draftsmanship with an art historian (on the way to Jerry Day, of all things!).  Afterwards,  once my thoughts had coalesced, I jotted them down and sent them off to him as well as to another art historian.  Having not heard back from either of them in over a month, I started feeling ignored.  Is it just me, or don’t you just hate it when no one pays you attention?  So in utter desperation, I thought I might run this by you, on the outside chance that you might want to weigh in.

My conversant, Tom, had held that the measure of an artist’s draftsmanship is how accurately and precisely he mimics the physical world in his art.  In his opinion, Picasso was pretty good, but the greats were da Vinci, Michelangelo, and some other Italian I had never heard of.  (Now that I’ve looked up Italian draftstmen, I think he said Correggio.)  Despite his professorial credentials and my lack thereof, I nonetheless brazenly floated the following trial balloon.  I offered, why not add a second parameter to evaluate the draftsmanship of the modern/contemporary artist, not in lieu of his accuracy and precision, but in addition to it? To introduce this concept, I first have to trot out the hackneyed 1934 Picasso quote (but my reason for invoking it is atypical, as you shall see):  “Formerly pictures used to move towards completion in progressive stages. Each day would bring something new. A picture was a sum of additions. With me, picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture, then I destroy it.”

Without belaboring the quote, no doubt fodder for another lively discussion, I’ll get right to my point.  Many, and probably most, modern and contemporary artists simplify their representations of the physical world, at least in the sense that they strip away detail.  But what often results is not only a simplified but also a misshapen representation.  Of course the misshapen forms can be intentional, certainly in Picasso’s hand.  But all too often the result seems imperfect and weak, born perhaps of an admirable creative impulse yet marred by poor execution.  Picasso on the other hand could pare away detail wholesale, yet what was left not only retained the essence of the object, but often even brought its essence into stark relief.  And when he succeeded–which was most of the time–the form that emerged from the scrap heap was perfect, wondrous, bristling with creativity.  I need not illustrate this point, since innumerable examples spring to mind, no doubt in your mind as well as mine.

Not so with most of the other so-called modern masters.  Take Chagall.  He gets many points for whimsy and creativity, and of course for his use of color, but his figures seem all wrong.  They leave the impression that he couldn’t draw if his life depended on it.

Fine, you say.  But, you ask, what does any of this have to do with draftsmanship?  In so doing, you have brought me full circle to my original point: It is only the master draftsman who can strip away detail and invent new form without damaging the subject.  In Picasso’s hand, the line of the artwork–and therefore the essence of the object–remain intact, enhanced even.  In this sense, Picasso’s draftsmanship is unparalleled.



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.)


In Memoriam

1971 Harlequin Head, destroyed 1971 Tête d'Arlequin, destroyed 2013

Tête d’arlequin

1971 – 2013


See the sad NY Times article reporting the theft from a museum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and the subsequent cremation of 7 artworks, including this wonderful, late Picasso drawing.

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!

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:

The Results are In

…but I don’t mean the elections. There were so many astonishing results in the NY auctions this week.  For the sake of brevity (and diplomacy), I’ll limit my comments to the two paintings I previewed (below) as well as one particular drawing.  Let’s start with the drawing, by far the most riveting result:

Le Viol (The Rape, 1940), pen, brush and ink on paper, 38 x 46 cm, was estimated at $4-6M but fetched $13,522,500.  This result speaks for itself, though I’m not exactly sure what it says.  Except that it breaks the world’s record by a mile for a black-and-white work on paper by Picasso.  It also comes in at the heels of the third priciest Picasso work on paper of all, including those in color.  But the three more expensive and more colorful works were all considerably larger.  This is more expensive than those three for its size, and is the second most expensive Picasso work on paper of all for its size (independent of whether the calculations are performed with the area or with the longer of the height or width).   This record is perhaps all the more remarkable considering its dark subject matter, in contrast to the more placid collection of acrobats, harlequins, and women, with the occasional still life and animal thrown in, of the next 100 contenders.

On the other hand, the Marie-Thérèse and Françoise discussed below (posted on 10-16-12) sold close to their low estimates for $41,522,500 and $5,234,500, respectively.  I think the lucky buyer(s) of these two paintings should be prosecuted for theft.

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.