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Picasso’s Mistress Makes $40.5 Million as Art Buyers Get Choosy

"La Lecture," a panel by Pablo Picasso. The work sold at a London auction for 25.2 million pounds ($40.5 million). Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) -- A Pablo Picasso painting of his mistress last night sold for 25.2 million pounds ($40.5 million) as highly valued artworks attracted selective bidding.

“La Lecture” was estimated to make 12 million pounds to 18 million pounds at Sotheby’s in London. Ten of the 42 Impressionist and modern lots failed to sell, including a bronze by Alberto Giacometti.

“The auction did all right, not great,’’ the London-based dealer Alan Hobart of the Pyms Gallery said in an interview. “The auction houses are struggling to find the goods. Rich collectors are hanging on to their art. Once prices are driven up, the market becomes more discriminating.”

Classic works by modern artists with reputations such as Picasso are attracting investment-conscious new buyers from the emerging economies of Russia, Asia and the Middle East, said dealers. Choosy bidders held back on other lots, in contrast with the equivalent event last year, which raised twice as much, boosted by the record 65 million pounds for another Giacometti bronze.

The oil-on-panel Picasso portrait of his blonde muse Marie-Therese Walter asleep in a chair with a book on her lap was bought on the telephone by Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, who acts for Russian clients. There were seven bidders “from around the world,’’ said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s European chairman of Impressionist and modern art.

The work, entered by an American collector, dates from 1932, the same year as 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.

Mistress Meeting

Picasso was 45 and Walter 17 when they met outside a Paris subway station in 1927. She was his mistress from 1927 to about 1935 when he was married to Olga Khokhlova.

A 1923 head-and-shoulders oil portrait of Khokhlova sold to a telephone bidder for 1.7 million pounds, just missing a high estimate of 1.8 million pounds.

Giacometti’s 1957 bronze portrait of his younger brother, “Grand buste de Diego avec bras,” estimated at 3.5 million pounds to 5 million pounds, failed to sell because of its pale color, according to dealers.

Marino Marini’s 1955 bronze of a mounted horseman, “L’Idea del Cavaliere,” carried a low estimate of 3.7 million pounds, reflecting the artist record of 4.5 million pounds paid for another sculpture at Christie’s Frieze Week sale in October.

One of three lots guaranteed by an irrevocable bid, it attracted negligible competition and was sold for 4.2 million pounds to David Norman, a Sotheby’s New York-based specialist.

Magritte Moon

Rene Magritte’s 1955 painting “Le Maitre d’Ecole,” showing a crescent moon hanging above his bowler-hatted alter ego, fetched 2.5 million pounds, beating a top estimate of 1.2 million pounds, and setting an auction record for a work on paper by the artist. It attracted three phone bidders. Telephones bidders dominated the evening, with about six lots falling to buyers in the room.

The auction raised 68.8 million pounds with fees against presale estimates of 55.6 million pounds to 79.3 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Successful buyers hailed from 11 different countries, Newman said. Last year’s 39-lot event raised 146.8 million pounds.

(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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