On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a rare drawing by Pablo Picasso formerly owned by Berlin banker, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy —forced to liquidate his collection prior to the start of World War II —will be sold privately through the gallery for a price of at least $10 million. The sellers of the pastel work on paper, Head of a Woman, dated 1903, are Mendelsson’s descendants, who were recently granted ownership of the work in a restitution case against Washington’s National Gallery of Art, which has owned the piece since 2001.
The WSJ also reported that the dealer, Larry Gagosian confirmed the family’s heirs, among whom there are about a dozen largely based in Europe, brought the piece to the attention of the gallery last fall to inquire about a potential sale in the event they were awarded rights. According to the dealer, the descendants chose his firm for the sale due to Gagosian’s long-secured relationship with the Picasso Estate and record of sales contributing to the artist’s robust market. Although the group’s attorney, John Byrne, did not disclose information regarding financial terms of the sale, the judgement is one that could lead to the pursuit of further restitution cases. This work is one of three total the National Gallery of Art has returned to heirs at the center of cultural reparation suits whose relatives were impacted by Nazi-era persecution.
As the weight of the coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge the art market, blue-chip dealers and auction houses have shifted attention to expanding private sale offerings in place of live programming. The decision marks another win for private trade, which is at this moment of economic fragility, an attractive consignment option over an uncertain public auction sector.
Completed during Picasso’s early Blue Period, a brief era in the early 1900s when the artist was in his early twenties— prior to a transition into his later signature abstract-cubist figuration—the picture is rare in its resemblance to a finished study for a traditional oil painting portrait. Featuring an austere blue-eyed woman reminiscent of an old masters sitter, it recalls the same melancholic tone of his early works whose subjects were based on the ill and impoverished. In the past, the piece has lived in the private collection of the Guggenheim where it landed in 1978. After subsequent sales at auction, it was finally donated to the National gallery from the estate of its former owner, American drawings collector and real-estate mogul, Ian Woodner in a posthumous gift to the institution thirty years ago.
Among the other major works in Mr. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s collection, which included five Picasso paintings and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, before he was forced to dismantle it under pressure from the Nazi regime includes Picasso’s painting “Boy with a Pipe,” from 1905 which sold in a record Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale for $104 million in 2004.