Art dealers are a prosecuted minority. So it came as no surprise when recently I fielded a call from a collector new to us, wondering how we distinguish ourselves from other Picasso vendors. This was a timely question–art fraud and related misconduct, though sadly commonplace, have spiked in the headlines rather conspicuously of late. The Panama Papers are but the latest bombshell to explode. Most dramatically, perhaps you heard that the Qatari royal family tried to seize a sculpture from Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso, from her apartment no less (it wasn’t there—it was on view in the Picasso Sculpture exhibit at the MOMA), in a dispute involving an alleged double-sale of the plaster to them and to Gagosian. Gagosian, who was allegedly “unaware of the first sale [to Qatar], bought the sculpture in May 2015 for about $106 million from Ms. Widmaier-Picasso, and then sold it to the New York collector Leon D. Black.”
More alarming is the fall of New York’s Knoedler Gallery, old news by now. Knoedler, which recently shuttered its doors amid a flurry of lawsuits, was one of the country’s oldest and most active art galleries, having plied its trade for 165 years. That is an odd number, and so is 13, the number of years that we have been open for business. It would be instructive at a time like this, when dishonesty among art dealers has once again been cast into the limelight, when headlines reveal the settling of yet another one of the many lawsuits against Knoedler, to delineate exactly how we distinguish ourselves from such galleries. So let me take this opportunity to describe our business practices, through which we partner with you to protect your interests.
The crux of the Knoedler case, as you may know, is the selling of fakes, notably abstract American art such as Pollock and Rothko. Astute Picasso collectors are aware that Picasso fakes, in various mediums, are ubiquitous. I have written about them extensively, both in this blog as well as in the chapter “Collecting Pitfalls” of A Guide to Collecting Picasso’s Prints. So how do you know that you are not about to buy a fake from us? Why indeed are our many satisfied clients, not only the collectors but also the knowledgeable dealers who buy from us, so pleased?
The number one reason is our unwavering moral compass. However, an honest path in business depends on not just one’s scruples but also one’s expertise. It doesn’t require Donald Rumsfeld’s underscoring of this point to appreciate that the knowledge the seller should have had is as important as the knowledge he did possess. Our enterprise is as well known for the depth of our knowledge of our favorite artist and his market as it is valued for our good eye. Both are essential in discerning the difference between what the market price is and what it should be. The difference between these two values is the essence of art market arbitrage. It dictates when something is a reasonable purchase and when it is a screaming buy (or a blinde metziah, if you speak French). Our depth of knowledge is as essential in this business as in any other—simply put, it is how we know what we are doing. In the 13 years that we have been in business as well as the 33 years that I have been collecting Picassos, we have never bought or sold a fake, and no client has ever returned a purchase because of doubts regarding authenticity. And we have a less than one per cent return rate, which returns occurred only because the collectors purchased the artworks sight unseen and didn’t ultimately like them enough following direct inspection.)
Trust but verify. (Why am I quoting only Republicans today?) In addition to our lifetime guarantee of authenticity, we accord a 30-day grace period during which we encourage you to solicit second opinions from other experts whom you trust and/or simply return your purchase for no reason for a complete refund if you’re not fully satisfied, provided only that we receive it in the same condition as you did.
The third way we try to help you sleep at night is by educating you, if you have the time for it. In the collecting guides which I have authored there are many guidelines and tips from which you can learn how to verify for yourself whether your acquisition is authentic. In the following respect, my experience with collecting and collectors is no different than my previous experience with patients: there is no substitute for curiosity, inquiry and self-education. Those patients who read up on their maladies, questioned their doctors’ advice, and otherwise took a broad interest in their care got better results. But we take it a step beyond what I could usually achieve as a radiologist: we partner with you in your education. Once you have expressed a serious interest in a given piece, we will provide scans of the relevant pages from the catalogues raisonnés and, when available, other references. In the case of original prints, for example, the relevant pages are usually from Bernhard Geiser, who began the eight volume catalog of Picasso’s original prints, or from Brigitte Baer, who finished it. Geiser and Baer describe the printing in detail, so you can crosscheck the various parameters for yourself: print size, paper tint and type, and, if any, the watermark, the medium of the signature, and the presence of any inscriptions. (Baer, as this magnum opus is usually abbreviated, since she compiled the lion’s share of it, doesn’t list sheet sizes, but that information is available for corroboration from other sources; note also that Baer is in French.) We will also help you make sense of these reference materials by delineating the parameters by which we judge the authenticity of your Picasso and enable you to see for yourself that it meets each of those well-known if not widely publicized standards. So…welcome to our free “Picasso University”.
Speaking of my prior medical career, I am often asked if the practice of radiology helps me in my dealings in art. Coincidentally or not, evaluating the authenticity of an artwork is not entirely dissimilar to reading an X-ray. Reading an X-ray is all about finding “what’s wrong with this picture.” It’s sort of like Where’s Waldo, although far more complex, given that Waldo can take many different forms as one looks for that telltale sign of disease or, in the case of an artwork, of fraud. Such signs can be obvious or quite subtle. They may be apparent to the casual observer or may require significant expertise. This reminds me of “the janitor rule” of radiology: if the janitor can spot the lung cancer on the x-ray from across the room, then it would be malpractice for the radiologist to have missed it. There may be no exact analogy in art authentication, but some fakes are outed quite easily, such as simply being the wrong size.
A meticulous approach to examining each artwork before arriving at a purchase decision involves a number of steps, which we will take you through. Provenance is no substitute for this methodical process. Provenance is often unavailable for original prints, and anyway, it can be created out of whole cloth. My heart sinks whenever the story begins with something flowery like, “My grandfather was a missionary in Africa and was given this Picasso in return for saving the life of an Englishman on safari….” True story! That is, it’s true I heard this story. The Picasso and presumably the story itself were both false. (I suppose Grandpa could have actually received a fake Picasso.)
There’s much more that could be said about process, but I’m guessing this may be more than enough for now. In the meantime, happy hunting! We look forward to your questions….
In channeling Picasso earlier today–you see, he comes to me at critical moments–the old man wanted to make sure I get the word out. My Spanish is better than my French, so he usually speaks to me in his mother tongue. My lack of fluency engenders misunderstanding at times, but today there was nothing lost in translation–his meaning was clear: Picasso has officially endorsed Bernie Sanders!
Picasso was of course a capitalist, not to mention the wealthiest artist in history. He was also a member of the Communist Party, though that should be viewed in its historical context. As a member of the French intelligentsia back then, there was a clear dichotomy: you were either a fascist or you were a communist. Though he was not a communist in any meaningful sense of the term, he certainly believed in a “chicken in every pot.” He was also most definitely anti-authoritarian. All things considered, it seems to me the philosophy of democratic socialism is one he would unquestionably espouse today. And though he would not stoop to the high school level of the current Republican discourse, I will provide illustrations of his oversized hands on my own responsibility. I trust that at least “Little” Marco, if not Pablo, would approve…..
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.
This post is ostensibly about the blockbuster Picasso Sculpture show at the MOMA, but first a bit of kvelling. Our 13-year-old daughter Gina won an international cello competition, first place in her age group, which led to a solo performance at Carnegie Hall. It provided a good excuse for the entire family to take in the Picasso show.
Picasso Sculpture runs through Sunday, February 7. Words are simply not up to the task of doing this sculptor justice. Thankfully by now enough critics have tried that I don’t need to further extol the exhibit–apart from just adding this word of encouragement: drop everything right now and go there!
It was great to see so many of our faves all at once—they never get old—but it was also delightful to be surprised by a number of sculptures Casey and I had never seen, let alone the kids. Simply sensational! And then taking in the permanent collection was of course a must. What a museum!
Not to be outdone, just after returning home, our 11-year-old violinist Sofie was a debut artist with the vaunted San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. She performed with them all over the Bay Area, including the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Here she is outside the Herbst:
Top of the new year to you! And best wishes from all of us….
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
“I do hope you’re not driving”
We had been texting back and forth while crossing the Bay Bridge, but the liberal use of emoticons betrayed my young ghostwriter.
“Can’t wait to meecha mystery scribe…. Tell your chauffeur that I’m staring at a beauuuuutiful Picasso: nude with crossed legs”
Sofie, riding shotgun, glanced at the attachment and pronounced that it was indeed beautiful. Unwilling to take my eyes off the road to examine my iPhone, I discounted all of these accounts. Not that I doubted any of their eyes—all three sets are quite keen—but I figured they were all admiring just another nice Picasso. After all, there are so many. Little did I know what was awaiting us as we entered the gallery.
And there she was, in the place of honor, the center of the main viewing room, ready to be ogled by all. Transfixed for the longest time, I interrupted my reverie just long enough to introduce ourselves to the debonaire host, Dr. Steven Platzman, founder of Addison Fine Arts. Steven, who had graciously opened his gallery for a preview of Sotheby’s upcoming NY sales, was in the midst of knowledgeably discussing the traveling treasures with the many visiting patrons of the arts.
As we wound our way through the several rooms, stopping only to indulge in the floating trays of gourmet canapés, my gratitude grew immeasurably, toward not only Steven for being so welcoming to my friends and family, but also to the good people of Sotheby’s for having arranged this sneak preview for the benefit of us Left Coasters. There were many fine works on display, but this lonely woman towered above them all.
Days later, with Nu aux Jaimbes Croisées (Nude with Crossed Legs) still reverberating in my mind, it strikes me that this is one of those instances in which the artwork must be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. The medium makes this especially true. Picasso didn’t often use pastels, and a significant and largish (57 x 43 cm) Blue Period pastel such as this is exceedingly rare. But when he did, the results could be striking. The textured richness of pastel is rivaled only by oil paint, and in cases such as this, the pastel seems arguably richer, deeper. (Wondering whether this observation is widely shared, Googling led me to an explanation on Wikipedia: “Pastel paintings, being made with a medium that has the highest pigment concentration of all, reflect light without darkening refraction, allowing for very saturated colors.”)
Standing in the aura of this artwork was a transformative experience, but I could hardly expect its power to come across in a photo. So hopefully you’ll have a chance to see it in NY. I will leave it to Sotheby’s capable hands to flesh out its description and discussion and will instead venture a few peripheral observations in establishing this woman’s proper place in the Blue Period pantheon.
Picasso’s Blue Period has been greedily collected for over a century, so it is also a rare event for one of the masterpieces of this seminal period to appear on the market. When using the $5M mark as the threshold for an important Blue Period artwork, there have been but four sales at auction in this millennium. Given such small numbers, each of these paintings should be evaluated individually in order to make any meaningful comparisons, but since you’re curious, I’ll just mention that their average price was over $34M. Admittedly, these were all oils, but important, full-sized Blue Period works on paper are not to be discounted. (Note that the record for Picasso works on paper was a Rose Period gouache, which long ago brought over $38M.) And I would hold this pastel against all but two of those paintings, each of which topped $50M. To fully account for interim appreciation, if you would prefer to use $2M as the floor, you could add one painting to the list, from way back in 2007. (I should acknowledge that Artnet, the database I consulted, is often incomplete, but it generally gives a pretty good idea.) So take a look at the comps—I think you will find the current estimate quite low.
The value of this artwork is in part attributable to its “freshness” to market. For better of for worse, the fine art market, or at least its upper echelons, places a large premium on a major artwork if it has not surfaced for a long time, if ever. Beyond simply fresh, this previously unheralded masterpiece has lived the past century in such obscurity that it would not be much of a stretch to call it an unknown masterpiece. Not that this pastel was entirely unknown–it was certainly included in Zervos and therefore in Wofsy’s Picasso Project, but those small, black-and-white illustrations could hardly have done justice to this piece, especially in view of how integral color is to its composition (more on that later). To have seen it only in black-and-white is almost tantamount to not having seen it at all. Daix also included a small black-and-white photograph but did not elaborate upon it in his text. There was also a book published in 1946 which would not have been illustrated in color, and a publication in Spanish in 2000 which I have not examined. It evidently took the 2001 publication, Picasso Erotique, to get a color photo into the public eye, but again without discussion. It is most unusual that a major Blue Period work escaped the limelight for over a hundred years.
In today’s “anything goes” art world, the stylistic innovations of this pastel are hardly enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows, but at the time, Nude with Crossed Legs must have been considered a radical departure. A century ago, it could only have been considered unfinished, that is, by anyone other than its creator. Picasso’s unerring eye always knew when to stop, even if his artwork may have looked half-finished in any conventional sense. But even in Picasso’s vast oeuvre, this pastel features a couple of stylistic firsts.
By now you have probably noted the various positions of the subject’s arms and legs. The final positions of most of the extremities is clear—not so with the right arm, of which its crossed iteration has hardly more weight than its vertical one. And what’s with that half-colored leg?
Pentimento (pleural: pentimenti), as it is traditionally defined, is “the reappearance in a painting of an underlying image that had been painted over, usually when the later painting becomes transparent with age.” (Barring aging, oil paintings in which the paint completely covers the canvas do not lend themselves to pentimenti, since their pigments are opaque.) This pastel marks the first example of Picasso’s deliberate decision to leave his pentimenti intact, thereby divulging the backstory of his process for all to see. Rather than erase them, Picasso must have found them interesting to behold, and presumably thought we would, too.
At least this is the first major artwork in Picasso’s oeuvre which features pentimenti. I have now completed an exhaustive search of all of the gouaches, watercolors, and pastels that preceded this work and found no other examples. (I did not however examine every black-and-white drawing up to this date. Not only are there limits to my obsessiveness, but also I don’t think of pentimenti as quite as radical an innovation in drawing, since sketching often involves correcting or improving along the way. Traditionally, artists drew their first contours very lightly and erased any remaining traces before considering their drawings finished. But Picasso subverted the canons of art wholesale, and this was no exception. His future work would feature some other delightful instances of pentimenti, although they didn’t occur very often, no doubt because of the sureness of the master’s hand. But three decades, several periods, and countless styles later, the pentimenti themselves briefly became the principal style of his artwork. Two sensational 1932 drawings come to mind to illustrate the pinnacle of Picasso’s pentimenti. I’ve previously illustrated “A Guide to Collecting Picasso’s Drawings” with one of them, Nu Couché. The other is shown below, Nu Endormi:
As for the blue leg of Nu aux Jaimbes Croisées, this pastel is the only artwork I can think of which employs the ingenious artifice of gaudily coloring a part of an otherwise flesh-colored subject by borrowing a bright color from the background. It is awe-inspiring to note that the greatest visual punster of all time had already amassed so many tricks by the ripe old age of 22.
Not that I am arguing for the primacy of innovation, but innovation is clearly one of the hallmarks of Modern Art. And Picasso was indeed the Thomas Edison of innovation. Yet it took the good Mr. Edison a thousand unsuccessful tries before arriving at a reliable filament for his bulb, whereas most of Picasso’s “experiments” were unmitigated successes. Perhaps other artists would have come up with many of Picasso’s inventions in the fullness of time, just as someone would eventually have invented the lightbulb. But it’s not just the vast number of Picasso’s inventions that staggers the mind, it’s just as much their execution, the amazing and beautiful ways in which he pulled them off….
I suppose it’s time to weigh in on the newly reopened Picasso Museum Paris. Not that it needs it—it truly speaks for itself. But opinions vary, and it should come as no surprise that the museum has its detractors, despite the fact that it has more Picassos and has more of them on view than any other place on earth. Weirdly, that doesn’t seem to stop some people. For example, see the scathing review by Holland Cotter in the NY Times of Oct. 27, 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/arts/design/the-picasso-museum-reopens-in-paris.html?_r=0). Tell you what—I’ll spare you and just paste one of his choicest rants:
“All together, you can learn a tremendous amount about him in the Picasso Museum show, not least that he could be a truly terrible artist. Maybe the biggest revelation, though, comes on the top floor, when you catch your first glimpse of a Cézanne landscape Picasso once owned, and instantly sense what’s been missing from the two floors below: focus, concentration, a point of repose, warmth like a light in a tunnel, a fire in a hearth, a vigil lamp in a church. The comparison of Cézanne to Picasso we see here is of painter to cartoonist, of steady walker to competition dancer. It’s hard even to imagine Picasso painting landscapes — though he did; there’s one nearby — because, judging by this jumpy show, he doesn’t know how to be quiet, to sit there, stop spewing, do nothing, look long.”
You’d think the Times, of all rags, wouldn’t have a hard time finding a writer who understands his subject, but never mind. At the time, I posted a comment on NYTimes.com in response, sight unseen. Now that I have seen the exhibit, naturally I have a bit more to say. But I’ll start by pasting my original riposte to Cotter:
I sympathize with the author’s desire to view the Picassos in chronological order. But that was not Picasso’s way. In his first museum retrospective in Basel in1932, he hung the exhibit himself and juxtaposed works of dissimilar periods and styles. Ms. Baldassari [the since fired curator], undoubtedly aware of this exhibit and in service of her exhibit’s theme, chose to do the same.
Picasso was not one to make our viewing simple. His art is chockfull of puzzles, allusions, and visual puns. He would be pleased, if the author’s description is accurate, that the visitors must wander about a seemingly disorganized exhibit, dead ends and all. I have always found that the museum’s choppy viewing spaces, amid its period architecture, enhance the intimacy and charm of the experience.
Rather than praise even a single Picasso, the author’s principal impression of the exhibit is that Picasso “could be a truly terrible artist.” Perhaps such irreverence is to be expected from someone who does not appreciate Picasso, much less his preeminence in the pantheon of art. A book-length equivalent of such a lack of understanding is Arianna Huffington’s screed. I am certainly not one for censorship, but the author makes the case that sacrilege should perhaps be judiciously edited from the usually responsible pages of the storied NY Times. Personally, I can hardly wait to arrive in Paris and bask in the glory of so many masterpieces, in whatever order.
Now, dear reader, fast forward a few months, to the day when my family stormed the museum, and then hold up for a moment so I can gush. Actually, there’s no need to belabor the point—simply put, there are twice as many Picassos on view than before. Need anything more be said? Four hundred works of art, a far larger permanent exhibit of Picassos than has ever existed. There were so many great Picassos on view, so many of them your faves and mine, that by the end, even my ability to take in yet another Picasso was starting to reach capacity. (But please don’t repeat this last to anyone—I have a reputation to uphold!)
As is well known, a successful museum’s bottleneck is not funding, it’s space.
The Musée Picasso has about 5000 Picassos, last I read. As far as I’m concerned, the only significant gauge of the success of the renovation is that many more of them are now on view. Any other criteria pale by comparison. So someone made the executive decision of reframing the paintings in a contemporary way (basically centering the raw canvas within a shallow white box). The effect was clean and simple and unobtrusive, better than a distracting frame of an ill-framed painting. I would have preferred leaving the old antique gilt frames intact, but whatever. Framing actually matters a lot to me, but really, fine art is not about the packaging.
As for the order of the artworks, or the lack of it, it could have been totally random, as far as I was concerned—I was so rapt up in devouring each individual piece that the order they appeared hardly mattered. Though whenever I actually noticed the groupings themselves, they seemed well-conceived. I can certainly understand that a Picasso novice might well prefer a chronological display in order to make sense of this 8-decade career. But Picasso hadn’t intended his art to be easy—he liked making his viewers work. He might have come up with a different arrangement if he were once again the guest curator, but I should think he would have graciously approved of Anne Baldassari’s exhibit. On the other hand, I don’t suppose he would have liked the new frames. Though who knows? That quintessentially modern artist might well have kept up with the times better than I….
What happens when you mix a rare and desirable blue-chip art collection with a bevy of hungry collectors? Well, at the special sale of unique Picasso ceramics from Marina Picasso’s collection, held at Sotheby’s London this June, the result, as you may have expected, was an unmitigated feeding frenzy. Rarely if ever has there been an opportunity for the public to see, much less choose among, such a large collection of the master’s unique ceramics. According to one of the Sotheby’s auctioneers, this assortment represented the lion’s share of Marina’s remaining unique ceramic collection. Even without this disclosure, many collectors must have judged that they were unlikely to ever again come across such a large collection of unique Picasso ceramics.
Casey and I and our three children happily took it all in during our sojourn in London. We of course made a point to scrutinize the several Picasso paintings and drawings on hand, but mostly we wandered about the ceramics room, marveling at the master’s creativity and playfulness and also at the sheer volume of his output (though that last didn’t.
Yet when it came to crunch time, that is, deciding which pieces we would actually like to acquire for ourselves and/or advise our collectors to, the ensuing critical analysis of the collection yielded a strikingly different result than reviewing the collection in its totality. After all, bringing the entire collection home with us was never even remotely the question. Rather, as in any art-buying expedition, the question in its distilled form was, which piece or pieces would we most like to live with?
As I have at times been known to do when beset with a large array of choices (see, for example, my collecting guide for Picasso’s original prints and editioned ceramics), I sharpened my virtual pencil and began the cold calculation of rating Marina’s terracotta treasures. In rating the ceramics, I did not so much compare each piece with others in the same sale as with Picasso’s entire ceramic oeuvre. Comparisons even with his editioned ceramics was warranted, especially in those instances in which there are generally available editioned ceramics of similar appearance, yet at far lower prices. This exercise, perhaps not surprisingly, resulted in a brutal pruning of the many available choices to but a small handful of compelling pieces, price permitting. I went through this process twice, before and after direct inspection of the sale. Direct inspection, as usual, improved the appearance of much of the art. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, only a handful of ceramics remained standing. Using a 0 to 10 scale, only 15 lots achieved better than a rating of 5. These included six 9’s and but two 10’s. Any such schema is of course highly subjective, since it relies on an individual’s own tastes and preferences. And call me a tough grader if you will, but I am prepared as always to defend my point of view.
Once the dust had settled, it was clear that Marina’s enthusiasm to rid herself of her estranged grandpa’s art was rivaled only by the enthusiasm of the collectors who snapped it up. Remarkably, all 126 ceramics were sold. Though it took several lots for the bidding to hit its stride, the more coveted pieces soon started selling for 3, 5 and 10 times their pre-auction estimates. Almost everything went high. The lot that soared the highest was a vase of a goat with large handles resembling horns (though it was paradoxically named cabri, French for a kid goat). This 9 in my book fetched £ 485,000 (around $761,000; shown above).
I also loved two clay sculptures. The first of them was reminiscent of his surrealist paintings of the late ‘twenties:
There was a fabulous octopus, to my knowledge is a unique subject among Picasso’s ceramics. It soared pretty high, despite an unstable though restorable central crack:
There were some vases with abstract designs (who says Picasso eschewed abstraction?) and also some wonderful tiles and plates depicting owls:
A hilarious faun really had to seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated (at least by me):
In the end, we came away with just exactly nothing (long story, but mostly I had my sights set on a drawing, an aquatint, and a unique ceramic at another auction) and the collectors for whom I had been bidding were too disciplined to have fared any better. It’s not that the achieved prices were too high, at least not for the better pieces. What I was left wondering about, rather, was how many bidders were thinking critically, versus how many were so swept away by the size of the collection, the rarity of the opportunity, and the auctioneers’ hype, as to have momentarily forgotten themselves and bid indiscriminately.
The results sort of speak for themselves. A number of collectors came away with wonderful artworks at not unreasonable prices. Still others ended up the sudden new owners of pricey ceramics of dubious artistic merit. I know of one instance in which the successful bidder had to try to convince himself—after the auction—of the beauty of his acquisition. He succeeded, seemingly. I wonder how many others found themselves in a similar situation. I’m guessing (because, for you psychology buffs out there, of the power of cognitive dissonance) that anyone else who had to try to love his purchase(s) was similarly successful….
The take-home is clear: approach collecting analytically, as well as with the heart. If an auction of interest is approaching, make a firm plan. And before the bidding starts, be sure to get yourself lashed tightly to the mast, safe from the Sirens’ song.
As our family of five is wrapping up our mini-“Grand Tour” of London and the Continent, I find myself thinking again and again about the many highlights of our trip. Our visit to the “new and improved” Picasso Museum in Paris deserves a whole blogpost in and of itself, but, although it’s been almost a week, my mind is still reverberating from that transcendent visual onslaught and needs to regain some composure before I can even think about tackling it. Then I should also weave in our visit to the French Riviera, with the Picasso Museum in Antibes, the Picasso Chapel in Vallauris with the wartime L’Homme au Mouton (The Man with the Sheep, 1943) in the nearby square, Picasso’s gift to the town. But a more manageable place to start is our serene sojourn at La Colombe d’Or, our perennial base of operations in the south of France.
The Golden Dove is a wondrous small hotel in the high-walled medieval town of Saint-Paul de Vence, nestled in the hills about 6 km above the French Riviera. We had checked in late at night, only to be greeted upon awakening by the sweet sounds of a symphony of doves. Before breakfast we wound our way to the gorgeous pool and beheld the great Calder mobile, seated at the foot of the pool on its massive haunches:
A large green ceramic apple roosted along its length, which always reminded Casey and me of the first time our now 12-year-old Gina had visited. She was two at the time, and we had perched her atop the apple for a memorable photo op. Now even our 10-year-olds, Sofie and Noa, seemed too large for that roost, at least without hazarding the good graces of the proprietors, the family Roux. Anyway, a pittosporum now loomed over the apple and prevented perching, at least for any wingless biped.
Apart from enlargement of the odd shrub, this property seemed otherwise exactly as I remembered it. Which is a good thing, because it remained just exactly perfect. Architecturally it is neither opulent nor grand, but it is nonetheless gorgeous: a stucco villa with cozy public rooms and large suites, a beautiful dining terrace overlooking the verdant valley below, and tasteful stonemasonry and landscaping throughout. But what makes this hotel unique, all the more remarkable given its small size, is its world-class modern and contemporary art collection. I’ll of course begin–no surprise–by enumerating the Picassos: The highlight of the collection, rivaled only by the massive Calder, is a wonderful 1950’s canvas in the dining room, which unexpectedly surprised me upon first encounter and has never failed to thrill me since. And I’m not alone in that opinion, as I believe it is the only one of the many oils in the establishment that is displayed behind protective glazing:
In the hallway leading to the pool are two original prints, the 1952 Crâne de Chévre with a dedication by Picasso to M. Roux Grand-Père, and one of the nicer etching/aquatints from The 156 Series. I’ve always loved all three of them, and it just so happened that another impression of that goat became available (elsewhere) during our visit. I absolutely adore Picasso’s animals in general, as you may know, and I had been wanting to acquire this particular memento mori for years. I finally snapped up this coincidental impression not just for its own sake but also as a memento vitae of our trip. (OK, why don’t I just admit that that is just a boldfaced rationalization for acquiring a great but noncommercial Picasso that we’ll almost certainly be “stuck” with for years? Well, I certainly hope so!) Taking that amazing canvas home with us as well would have only added to our fine memories, but now one really shouldn’t be greedy. No doubt the Roux are sentimentally attached to it anyway, given the history of how it fell into their hands. Here is how it happened:
Picasso was a generous man, especially when it came to giving away his art, but in the case of La Colombe d’Or, there was ample precedent. Just about every room of the establishment, public and private alike, is chock full of paintings, prints and sculptures. As the story goes, the starving artists who dined chez Roux paid for their meals in art. Sounds nice, but by the time they chowed down on that lovely terrace, quite a number of them were already world-famous and hadn’t missed a meal in decades. Their more famous gifts include an excellent Miró canvas, a proper blue Yves Klein “body-brush” painting, a large mural after Léger on the terrace, and a huge César marble thumb just within the entrance. There are a whole bunch of Calder works on paper and a suspended mobile, and of course the seated monster with swinging arms. Between the Calder, the beautiful stonework, and the Mediterranean plantings, we all agreed it was the most beautiful pool ever. I won’t bother mentioning the mosaic, an unimpressive late Braque bird, on the wall behind the pool.
Between La Colombe d’Or and the rest of the Picassos, the Côte d’Azure was a splendid hors d’ouevre before arriving in Paris, where I might well have been the only crazed art lover to spend a solid week institutionalized at the Picasso Museum, if not for the many tween activities that drew my kids, just as the shopping sirens beckoned Casey. And, out of nowhere, even I had this nagging feeling that Paris might be hiding one or two other attractions, if only I could find them.