As recent news broke that dealer Larry Gagosian would sell a rare drawing by Pablo Picasso from 1903 carrying an asking price of $10 million —recently repatriated to the heirs of the original owner, German Jewish art collector who was forced to liquidate his holdings under the Nazi regime— the private sale puts another spotlight on the shift away from public sales in the coronavirus era.
The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy heirs chose Gagosian for his established roster of exhibitions around the artist executed “in close coordination with the Picasso heirs,” the dealer said. Gagosian’s status was also bolstered by his collaboration with the late scholar John Richardson, whom Gagosian points out was “known to be one of the last direct witnesses to Picasso having spent quite a bit of time with him writing a multi-part biography of Picasso’s life.”
The pastel work on paper, Tête de Femme, carries an obvious cultural value supported by its provenance history— having been in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim in the 1970s, then endowed from the significant Woodner prints collection to the National Gallery in D.C. where has lived since 2001. Following the report of the sale in the Wall Street Journal, Gagosian was still taking calls from prospective buyers. The dealer also confirmed the rare pastel drawing has been the subject of institutional interest.
The most expensive Picasso pastel drawing ever sold at auction was an early period portrait from 1921 Femme accoudée from the estate of Adele and Herbert Klapper at Christie’s for $12 million in 2018. Another with a similar palette from 1903 Nu aux Jambes Croisses sold for $12 million in 2015. Pastel was a brief period for the artist, making the 1903 drawing very rare.
As private, often virtual, sales become the primary mode for transactions, the central names like Picasso and Warhol, are likely to remain barometers of market health. In a live talk held by Lévy Gorvy’s New York and Hong Kong representatives, co-owner, Brett Gorvy noted the crucial period following the 2008 financial crisis to gauge market health. “Overall, the market came down by about 50%. We haven’t seen that this time, because there hasn’t been a test. In the 2008 crisis, almost immediately auctions were accessible for audiences to test where the market was” said Gorvy.
In 2018, there was a global Picasso peak driven by a few key elements: a major show at the Tate Modern; a surge in consignments simultaneously entering the market; and a rising interest in the artists among highly liquid collectors based in Asia. The same year in May, Sotheby’s also staged a Picasso-Condo exhibition in Hong Kong, offering four paintings by Picasso consigned by the artist’s granddaughter for private sale. Picasso remains among the highest earners and most requested artists among the Sotheby’s private sales sector according to their 2019 report.
More than $744 million in Picasso’s art traded hands in public auctions in 2018. That’s twice what the second biggest artist at auction, Claude Monet, was able to bring in. Sheer volume of Picasso’s work means that he is more widely held as an artist. The 2018 total comprises almost 3,400 individual works ranging from pottery to prints to oil-on-canvas masterpieces, with the average price of a sold Picasso work at $219,000. The next year the auction market contracted. In public sales, $346 million was spent on 3,548 Picasso works, as the average price dropped to $97,000.
Artprice also estimated that in the first half of 2019 the Modern art sector had fallen by 21% in public auction records— with the market at-large seeing the supply of museum-quality works contract as collectors held onto their most valuable works. Whether the far sharper fall in the Picasso market is a measure of weak demand for the Modern master or shifting of the market to private sales is hard to document. But Gagosian’s capacity as a main player in the Picasso market puts him in a privileged position as the trade veers private.
In 2018, Art Economist Roman Kraussel shared with The Art Newspaper that Picasso’s auction records have been resilient through each market drop since the 1990s. Gagosian himself concurs. He says, “in fact, it’s interesting to note that Andy Warhol had a stated goal to surpass the output of Picasso, which he probably would have done if he lived a normal life span. Picasso is by many people’s estimation the most important artist of the 20th century. His market, in my view, will always be strong.”
Questions remains as to how the top artists of the market will be affected by the pandemic. From the last market crisis in 2008, several major artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, whose selling prices were once ablaze, saw their market prices fall sharply and never fully recover their past heights even as specific works remained exceptionally valuable. Picasso, on the other hand, never saw the same retrenchment in public prices. More important to a dealer like Gagosian, the best quality works remain concentrated in private hands.
“The real great works of Picasso people are quite reluctant to sell,”Gagosian says. “So they don’t very often go to auction, and that kind of skews the overall results and trajectory of the market. But if you consider the number of Picassos that were made and the number that come up for auction, his market remains right at the top of the heap.”
Gagosian reminds us that “many of the important works by Picasso are sold privately. In most cases those results really remain private. And if those results were a part of the mix so to speak, you’d see that’s Picasso prices remain very strong. And that the demand for his work remains very strong. He is in many ways the gold standard of the art market. And I think he’ll remain that way for the foreseeable future.”
“The cognoscenti,” Gagosian adds, “the insiders of the market, and when I say insiders I’m talking about the most knowledgeable museums and collectors realize that there’s another market there that’s not reflected in the auction room.”
With an oeuvre spanning from the early 1900s to 1973, his market appeals to varied corners of the global collecting base that value masterpieces by different criteria. For top Asian buyers, postwar-era figurative portraits with wall power are the most valued. That taste is the opposite of the American buyers who prefer rare Rose period works deemed to be the highest caliber examples.
Now that private sales are expanding, we may lose Picasso as a bellwether of art market health simply because we won’t see the results made public. Despite the industry’s resilience in times of economic and political uncertainty, Clare McAndrew, the author of the 2019 Art Basel UBS Global Art Market Report notes the tendency of dealers to employ more discretion. “The relative security and confidentiality” she notes is a likely a key factor in expansion of the private sale sector. As global public auction sales dropped 17% overall from 2018 to 2019, the decline in global auction sales is reflective of a lack of supply in ultra-high value lots. As museum level works are traded privately, the price points at public auction will shift.