Picasso Portraits of Lovers Fetch $68.5 Million in Sale Battles

"Jeane fille endormie" by Pablo Picasso, depicting the artist's mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, was included in Christie's International's June 21 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art in London. It sold for 13.5 million pounds ($21.9 million). Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Pablo Picasso’s portraits of three different lovers raised 42.2 million pounds ($68.5 million) last night in London as collectors of the Spanish artist battled for paintings and led demand for 20th-century artworks.

Christie’s International’s three-hour auction of modern and Impressionist art totaled 140 million pounds, including 40 lots from the estate of the Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler, who died last year. The Basel-based gallerist’s material contributed 44.7 million pounds with only one piece failing to sell -- a Claude Monet water-lily painting.

“The market is strong,” the New York-based dealer Tony Shafrazi said. “The media is panicking about the economy, and yet there’s a lot of hidden money out there.”

Picasso is the world’s most heavily traded modern artist at auction. Wealthy investment-conscious collectors looking for a hedge against recession are attached to his trophy works, particularly when they depict his lovers. The 1932 painting of Marie-Therese Walter, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” fetched $106.5 million -- the most for any artwork at auction -- at Christie’s, New York, in May 2010.

A 1939 painting of Dora Maar, “Femme assise, robe bleue,” showing Picasso’s lover on a chair sporting a purple hat, sold yesterday for 18 million pounds, against an estimate of 4 million pounds to 8 million pounds. It had been acquired by the seller’s family from Beyeler in about 1968.

The new buyer was the Swiss-based Greek collector Dimitri Mavrommatis, bidding by telephone to Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international head of Impressionist and modern art, the auction house said after the sale.

Marie, Dora

Two lots earlier, the London-based dealer Alan Hobart of the Pyms Gallery paid 13.5 million pounds for Picasso’s 1935 painting “Jeune fille endormie,” showing the artist’s mistress Walter snoozing on her folded arms.

Valued at 9 million pounds to 12 million pounds, the canvas was sold by an anonymous owner who is donating proceeds to the University of Sydney to fund medical research.

“The Maar was the best of tonight’s Picassos,” said Guy Jennings, partner in London-based dealers Theobald Jennings. “The market is sane and solid, and slightly stronger than it was in May in New York.” Jennings was one of several dealers who noticed Asian clients bidding on “entry level” works by modern masters. A Picasso print priced at 67,250 pounds was one of 4 percent of the lots that went to Asian buyers. European bidders bought 54 percent of the works, with the remaining 42 percent falling to the U.S., said Christie’s.

Francoise Gillot

The most expensive Beyeler lot was the 1946 painting “Bust de Francoise,” showing Picasso’s lover Francoise Gillot seated in a white chair. The oil-on-board work had been acquired from the artist’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, in 1997 and sold to the New York-based dealer Acquavella Galleries for 10.7 million pounds, against a high estimate of 10 million pounds.

Monet’s 7-foot-wide (2.1 meter) “Nympheas” painting, dating from about 1914 to 1917, had been bought by Beyeler for stock from a Paris dealer in 1981. Unfinished and with a stamped signature, it failed to attract a bid against an estimate of 17 million pounds to 24 million pounds. Monet’s late water lily paintings have been given hefty valuations after Christie’s sold the 1919 “Le Bassin aux Nympheas” for a record 40.9 million pounds in June 2008.

“The Beyeler works weren’t fresh to the market and most of them were selling the right prices,” Jennings said. “The Monet was just a bit overvalued, and then there were some silly prices for smaller things with personal associations.”

A Diego Giacometti glass-topped table with base in the form of a bronze tree sold to a telephone bidder for 646,050 pounds, against a valuation of 50,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds. The dealer’s 17th-century Spanish walnut desk reached 289,250 pounds, more than 10 times the upper estimate of 20,000 pounds.

Macke, Klee

August Macke and Paul Klee were among five artists who reached new auction highs. The short-lived Macke’s vibrant 1914 watercolor “Im Bazar” sold to a telephone bidder for 4 million pounds, five times the upper estimate. Klee’s 1932 painting of a dancer sold for 4.2 million pounds to an unidentified bidder in the room, doubling the low estimate. The Klee’s European seller had acquired the canvas from Galerie Beyeler in 1979.

Christie’s sold 87 percent of its 92 lots, achieving a total that was the third highest for an auction in this category held by the company in London. The total with fees fell in the middle of the estimate of 114.7 million pounds to 144.4 million pounds, based on hammer prices.

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

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