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Picasso’s Sleeping Mistress May Fetch $28.6 Million at Auction

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"Paul Eluard"
"Paul Eluard" (1929) by Salvador Dali was included in Sotheby's auction, ``Looking Closely: A Private Collection,'' held in London on Feb. 10, 2011. It fetched 13.5 million pounds with fees, beating a hammer-price estimate of 3.5 million pounds to 5 million pounds. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- A Pablo Picasso painting of his mistress may sell for as much as 18 million pounds ($28.6 million) at Sotheby’s in London next month as auction houses feed collectors’ hunger for trophy works of 20th-century art.

“La Lecture,” showing Picasso’s blonde muse Marie-Therese Walter asleep in a chair with a book on her lap, will be offered in Sotheby’s Feb. 8 sale of Impressionist and modern art, the New York-based company said in an e-mailed statement.

The work dates from 1932, the same year as the Picasso’s Walter-inspired “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” which fetched $106.5 million -- a record for any work of art at auction -- at Christie’s International in New York in May last year. It was one of several museum-quality works by big-name 20th-century artists that international bidders pushed to new highs in 2010.

“There are buyers in the market who specifically want Marie-Therese Picassos,” Helena Newman, Sotheby’s European chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, said in an interview. “They’re iconic paintings. She brings an amazing languorous sensuality to his work.”

The panel painting, entered by an American collector, has not been seen at auction since 1996, where it failed to sell against a low estimate of $6 million at Christie’s New York. It is one of two works in the 42-lot auction that has been guaranteed a minimum price through a third-party “irrevocable bid.” The low estimate is 12 million pounds, said Sotheby’s.

The 45-year-old Picasso met Walter by chance in 1927 when she was leaving the Paris subway.

“He simply took me by the arm and said: ‘I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together,’” said Walter in an exhibition catalog.

Wife, Mistress

Walter was 17 at the time. She remained the mistress of the artist, who was married to Olga Khokhlova, from 1927 to about 1935.

Sotheby’s London auction also includes a 1923 head-and-shoulders portrait of Khokhlova, valued at 1.3 million pounds to 1.8 million pounds.

“Impressionist and modern is a difficult market to judge at the moment,” the London-based dealer Alan Hobart, director of the Pyms Gallery, said in an interview. “Because they have a proven track record there’s been a massive boom in price for certain works. You could have Russians, Brazilians or Chinese bidding. It’s endless. Other things don’t do so well, mainly because they’re either overpriced or in poor condition.”

Last February, Alberto Giacometti’s 1961 bronze “Walking Man I” fetched an artist record 65 million pounds (then $103.4 million) at Sotheby’s. The following June, a Claude Monet “Nympheas” painting failed to achieve an ambitious estimate of 30 million pounds at Christie’s.

Bronze Sculptures

Giacometti’s 1957 bronze, “Grand buste de Diego avec bras,” is estimated to fetch between 3.5 million pounds and 5 million pounds at Sotheby’s this February, while Marino Marini’s 1955 sculpture of a mounted horseman in the same medium, “L’Idea del cavaliere,” is valued at 3.7 million pounds to 4.5 million pounds.

The estimate for the Marini reflects the artist record of 4.5 million pounds paid for another sculpture at Christie’s Frieze Week auction in October, said dealers.

Sotheby’s auction carries a low estimate of 55.6 million pounds. The equivalent event last year carried a minimum valuation of 69 million pounds.

Buyers will have a further 23 Impressionist and modern lots to choose from in the company’s “Looking Closely: A Private Collection” sale on Feb. 10. The works, including Salvador Dali’s “Portrait de Paul Eluard,” are estimated to raise at least 23.4 million pounds in total.

Paul Gauguin’s 1901 Tahiti-period painting of sunflowers in a vase, “Nature morte a ‘L’Esperance,’” valued at 7 million pounds to 10 million pounds, is the main highlight of Christie’s rival sale on Feb. 9. This 78-lot offering is expected to raise at least 73.9 million pounds, as against 56.5 million pounds last year.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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