Alexandra Peers’s summary in Vanity Fair of the Cezanne deal rumors surrounding the purchase of the final version of The Card Players contains a number of gobsmacked observations:
Is the painting, created at the cusp of the 20th century, worth it? Well, Cézanne inspired Cubism and presaged abstract art, and Picasso called him “the father of us all.” That said, “$250 million is a fortune,” notes Victor Wiener, the fine-art appraiser called in by Lloyd’s of London when Steve Wynn put his elbow through a Picasso, in 2006. “But you take any art-history course, and a Card Players is likely in it. It’s a major, major image.” For months, he said, “its sale has been rumored. Now, everyone will use this price as a point of departure: it changes the whole art-market structure.”
It’s not clear how the deal up-ends the pricing structure of the art market. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true. It validates recent prices paid for important works (though this is by nature a mutually reinforcing circle.)
The prices of the Brody Picasso and Safra Giacometti set the structure for how The Card Players would be valued. So even though the number is high, the price is actually in fairly in line with recent prices for important but still less pivotal works. It may be hard to quantify The Card Players as 2.5x as important as the Walking Man. But that doesn’t seem out of register. It’s not as if the painting is undistinguished. For the Qatari museum project, the work is a capstone.
Further validating the price is this speculation from the deal:
Shortly before his death in the winter of 2011, Embiricos began discussions about its sale, which was handled by his estate. Two art dealers—William Acquavella and another, rumored to be Larry Gagosian—offered upward of $220 million for the painting, people close to the matter said. But the royal family of Qatar, without quibbling on price, outbid them, at $250 million. (Disputes about the exact price turn on currency exchange rates, exactly when the painting changed hands—and whether the person talking has a pricey Cézanne in inventory. Estimates of what Qatar paid range as high as $300 million.)
Dealers don’t buy for themselves. They buy with selling in mind. That means acquiring a work at a price that can bear increasing. The Al-Thanis simply paid the $30m commission Acquavella would have tacked on to the price directly to the Embiricos estate.
So, was the painting worth $250m? The answer seems to lie in the fact that two dealers were willing to risk a serious amount of money betting that it was. Does that mean they were confident more than one buyer existed above their own $220m purchase price? Wouldn’t it be insanely risky to spend nine-figures on a work with only one possible buyer?