A Tough Audience (A Slight Review of the Current Art Market)

This morning I delivered a lecture to the toughest audience I’ve ever encountered: enthusiastic, true, but with a 30 second attention span and constant hand-raising, which when called upon led to shaggy-dog stories with no question at the end. The topic was Picasso, and I found myself wondering how to best reach this know-it-all group of four- and five-year-olds from my daughter’s preschool. We focused primarily on a colorful cubist gouache because it allows many interpretations, and wouldn’t you know it that they came up with quite a number of them. Among the things I told them, they particularly liked the famous Picasso line I had trotted out for the occasion, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Feeling rather good about themselves, the kids then went out to play in our yard, said their thanks, and walked back to preschool with their teachers and the couple of moms who had come along for the adventure. It was a morning well spent.

My first effort at preschool education reminded me of the Passover story of the Four Sons, which instructs fathers in how to tailor the teaching of the Passover theme to suit their children’s disparate learning methods. It also occurred to me that this time-honored tale bears more than a glancing similarity to the current fine art market. The paradigmatic four sons are the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. These four types populate the art market as well, and I have always defined my role as a Picasso art dealer partly in terms of how to best handle each of them. The wicked son, the con artist who in one way or another tries to swindle the simple son, is uneducable and is clearly beyond my reach. So, apart from trying to marginalize the wicked son, my efforts are mostly geared at reshaping the simple and unquestioning sons in the mold of their wise model brother.

But it’s not always so easy going. The simple son time and again gets so carried away by the prospect of owning a Picasso (!) that he fails to consider the merits of the art itself. And, even more fundamentally, the son who doesn’t know how to ask doesn’t bother to inquire as to whether or not the Picasso is in fact real. Of course the novice fine art buyers today are not really simple. On the contrary, they are typically highly educated, successful professionals with money to burn. But all too often they become so crazed at the prospects of owning a Picasso when one suddenly crosses their path while, say, on vacation, that they leave all their business sense at the door. From the nouveau riche Russian who shelled out over $95 million this month for a painting of Dora Maar, to the two saps who recently bought fake Picassos at Costco, to the bottom feeders who cruise fake Picasso listings on eBay, collectors are subject to the triple dangers of bad, fake, and overpriced art.

The novice Picasso collector is often hampered by an uncritical eye. Picasso is a household word to him, and he probably has a few images of famous Picassos emblazoned in his mind, but he has limited familiarity with the length and breadth of Picasso’s work, much less the prices that Picassos fetch and the pitfalls that beset the unsophisticated collector. He is unaware that the wicked son has been busily manufacturing Picasso facsimiles or tearing them out of coffee table books and passing them off as original art. Picassomania knows no bounds, nor should it, given that he is the world’s greatest artist. But collectors must beware the wicked, and must also learn the right questions to ask.

Yet a novice Picasso collector bought the second highest-priced painting in history, so one wonders if he fared well. The answer, in my opinion, is yes and no. With a well-catalogued, high-profile item like the nine-figure Dora (I’m rounding up a bit), authenticity is not an issue. But how about price-gouging? Did the piece really merit 95M? Well, that is admittedly a tough question. The painting is at once beautiful to behold yet unflattering to its subject. In case you’ve only seen an image of it in the recent news, I would caution you about judging it from a photograph—it’s a painting that really had to be seen “in the flesh” to be fully appreciated. Its digital facsimiles are drained of most of its punch, which was delivered largely by its monumental size and its bold, glistening colors, as well as of course by its inventive and powerful design. Dora’s talons were much more alive and menacing in person, and her attire was much more beautiful.

Sotheby’s extensive marketing efforts didn’t depress the price, of course. The widespread, full-color press releases months before the auction were a good start. Then, Dora made the rounds, traveling first class no doubt, as Sotheby’s flew her to the homes of potential bidders such as Steve Wynn, the Vegas developer who is also a famous Picasso collector. And, in print, its catalogue assertions correctly exclaimed, “the present work is a picture of great compositional ingenuity. Dora Maar au Chat (Dora Maar with Cat) was the most elaborate portrait of Dora that Picasso painted in 1941. In other depictions of her from the Spring and early Summer of 1941, he renders her with similarly sharp nails… but in no other picture from that year does he so generously embellish her image with ornamentation and color.” However, though this Dora is one of the largest paintings of the era, it is by no means even close to the most accomplished of her depictions. Also, I had a bit of trouble with her face. Not that I object in the least to the snout off to one side of it—after all, I love Picasso—but this visage is far from her best. Still, allowing that most of those have made their way to museum collections, I’ll allow that it did rank pretty high among the large and colorful available portraits of this woman.

With the Picasso piece de resistance of the year hovering around nine figures for the second year in a row at auction, a hundred million dollars is emerging as the current benchmark for the “best in show” Picasso. Yet the varied opinions about last year’s big sale are instructive about the opposing points of view, not to mention misinformation, in the art market, even at the top. When Garçon à la Pipe (Boy with a Pipe) hammered down at Sotheby’s New York in 2004 for $104.1 million, the editorial fallout was immediate and widespread. At one extreme, claims were put forth such as the following from the International Herald Tribune (May 8, 2004), “The picture is one of the greatest ever, perhaps the greatest,” by Picasso. The opposite camp was heralded by a pronouncement from John Richardson, one of Picasso’s foremost biographers, who stated that the painting would not have made his top 20 Picasso list. Interestingly, Richardson went on to say that no painting is worth a 100 mil. Coming from a world-class expert, that opinion tickled my funny bone. So if a Stealth Bomber costs more than a billion dollars, what, a Picasso is not worth a tenth of that, say its left wing? Richardson, of all people, should know that there’s no such thing in art as intrinsic (monetary) value, but rather that the monetary value of art is determined by whatever the market is willing to bear. Or at least what two runaway bidders are willing to bear.

Incidentally, just like for Richardson, Boy with a Pipe would not have made my top 20 list, or the top 100. Possibly not even the top 500. Which is not to say that I don’t think it’s an exceptionally beautiful painting, but, rather, that Picasso created many exceptionally beautiful paintings.

Notice however that Richardson didn’t make any similarly disparaging comments about this year’s bonanza, or at least not any quoted in the media, nor did he try to set any price limits this time on its worth. This time around he had two data points to consider, and, of course, two points make a trend! Presumably Richardson realized along with the rest of us that this is what such works now go for.

Even if they had lacked the imprimatur of a major auction house, the authenticity of these two pieces would not be in doubt. No matter what you think of these oils, it is clear that no one with less than Picasso’s genius could have created them. Not to mention that both pieces were referenced in the appropriate catalogues of Picasso’s paintings and were also adorned with unimpeachable provenance.

But down here below the cloud level, where the rest of us may find ourselves aspiring to purchase less distinguished Picassos, authenticity becomes a more important issue. Down here on the ground, even the major auction houses occasionally blow it.

Here’s an example, with which I’m rather familiar. It concerns perhaps the two most misguided kinds of collectors rolled into one: the uninformed buyer and the autograph hound. To set the stage, it is worth first noting that in this Picasso-manic market, the autograph hound will pay almost anything just for a prominent signature, regardless of how the art looks. Though he may not know it himself, the autograph hound clearly seems more interested in owning an autograph by Picasso than the art that comes with it. The autograph hound doesn’t really appreciate the beauty or significance of a given Picasso, but appraises its value as a function of whether or not it is signed, and how large, bold and colorful is the signature. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with collecting autographs. It’s not a passion I understand, though I know it is commonplace. Yet when the autograph is attached to a work of art, and when more of the value of that work of art is related to the art itself than to its signature, at such times the buyer needs to understand the art and the art market before considering a purchase. Needless to say, failing to do so is a recipe for disaster.

The case at hand involves a sum close to $200,000, which was exchanged for a so-called “oil painting” of a huge signature next to a few yellow and red lines vaguely resembling the Catalan flag, as well as a small patch of blue thrown in for good measure, not much of a work of art at all, yet—it gets worse—both the flag and the signature were simply a stenciled reproduction. This client was uninformed not only about what constitutes an oil painting (it sort of requires oil paint, one might imagine), but about what you can expect $200,000 worth of Picasso will get you. This type of buyer has done the least amount of market research. This particular buyer clearly knew next to nothing about the breadth and scope of Picasso’s work (why else would he have lusted after such a lackluster image), yet that didn’t stop him from parting with a rather large sum. Alarmingly, the auction house in question has yet to make restitution to its unfortunate client, even after nine years of pleading and intermittent litigation. Thankfully, such horror stories are the exception to the rule in the case of the major auction houses and established art dealers, and are likely unintentional.

Not so with many less established channels. Where you don’t want to find yourself shopping for your first Picasso is at a place with no art expertise. Take Costco, for example. At least they are solvent enough and value their reputation (or legal exposure) enough to offer refunds for the buyers of their fake Picassos. Costco’s errors, if not those of the art dealers who provided them with the fakes, were also presumably unintended. Art dealers of questionable repute and many online auction sites are another matter, where art fraud presents a major impediment between you and your first Picasso.

To add insult to injury, the Catalan flag and the Costco fakes were copies of “bad” Picassos, artistically speaking. Now Picasso, it must be conceded, made a lot of bad Picassos. But, of course, only he was entitled to do so! As the greatest artistic experimentalist, not to mention the most prolific artist, of all time, his wanderings were sure to have led to some dead ends.

There is yet another lesson to be learned from the Costco fiasco beyond the obvious one of the prevalence of fake Picassos and even beyond the perhaps less obvious one of the prevalence of bad Picassos. What has emerged from the Costco story is the startling desperation with which buyers cling to the hope that their purchases are real, against all odds. Wouldn’t you want your money back if you learned that Maya Widmaeir-Picasso’s (Picasso’s daughter), who authenticates Picassos pro bono, had stated that not only were your Picassos fake, but her letters of authenticity regarding them were also forged? Yet, as reported in the NY Times, the first of the two Picasso shoppers to be duped at Costco, Louis Knickerbocker, “is much attached to his $40,000 doodle…. Mr. Knickerbocker expressed skepticism about Ms. Widmaier-Picasso’s reaction to the drawings and the certificates. ‘Seeing as she signed a lot of those things, who knows how many years ago, I’m not surprised if she’s going to say that it’s fake unless she has it in front of her,’ he said. (Ms. Widmaier-Picasso viewed printouts of high-resolution digital photographs of the drawings and certificates.) Mr. Knickerbocker…said he remains a loyal customer and that for now he has no plans to return the drawing…. ‘I’m sure that the art galleries hate that Costco’s selling art,’ he reflected.”

What’s most amusing about this story is that Knickerbocker doubts Maya’s opinion rather than Costco’s. Maya had no vested interest in rendering her opinion apart from restoring honesty and transparency to the art market. She certainly had no profit motive. And, after all, what does Costco know about Picasso?

The San Francisco physician, Dr. Frank Zhang, who paid $37,000 for his Piccostco, was only slightly more skeptical. In an interview with the Times, “he said he had long been a fan of both Picasso and Costco, where he has shopped frequently. While Costco is better known for its bulk offerings of paper towels and other household staples, it has successfully sold fine art, mostly lithographs, for several years on the Web and at road shows. Dr. Zhang said that when he learned of Costco’s art offerings, he contacted the wholesaler and was among the first customers to buy an original work. ‘You feel so proud to have a real Picasso piece,’ he said of his crayon drawing…. Dr. Zhang said he fervently hoped his Picasso was authentic. He even offered to fly to Paris with Costco officials … to seek a second opinion from Ms. Widmaier-Picasso.” But she had already pronounced as fakes both the drawing and the letter of authenticity ascribed to her! Why seek a second opinion from the same opinion-maker?

I recently encountered just as silly a case among my own prospective clients, for one of whom I had reviewed two eBay offerings. Even after I had rejected these two prints outright as obvious fakes, he went on to be the successful bidder for two other fake Picasso prints. In their case, he consulted me only after the auctions. At least his story ended well. After I had given the same verdict to his purchases, he decided simply not to pay. (But, dear reader, please don’t send me your pet eBay listings to review. I could spend all day doing it. After this episode, I instituted my one eBay-listing-per-client cap. Since then, because of a continued barrage of similar email, I’ve been considering lowering this cap to zero.)

So, to review our primer on how to buy your first Picasso in five easy steps: 1. Don’t be an autograph hound—buy the art, not the signature, 2. Remember The Emperor’s New Clothes—learn how to evaluate the art itself, 3. Learn to distinguish between good and bad Picassos, 4. Learn to discern between real and fake, or who to trust for that distinction, and 5. Learn the right price to pay. The 100 million dollar decisions are the easy ones—the devil’s in the 10,000 dollar ones. In short, to paraphrase Picasso, as four year olds we liked pretty things as much as any adult. But it takes us a whole lifetime to learn how to see them as critically as a child.

And, by the way, if you do have a 100 mill to blow on a Picasso, please, call me up!

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