This Spring, You Won’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Picasso
When Pablo Picasso died in 1973, he left a chunk of his estate to his granddaughter, Marina Picasso. Included in her inheritance was La Californie, a colossal white villa in the south of France, along with millions of dollars’ worth of art.
She’s begun to sell some of that art, most notably in the auction Picasso in Private, which garnered a total of £12 million ($15.4 million) in February 2016 at Sotheby’s in London. On May 18, Picasso is putting an additional 111 of her grandfather’s artworks up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York, in a sale that’s expected to yield from $3.3 million to $4.7 million.
The auction comprises 64 works on paper and 47 ceramic objects, all of which depict either people or animals. Estimates in the sale range from $5,000 to $120,000.
For anyone even glancingly familiar with Picasso’s multibillion-dollar market—one of his paintings recently sold for $179 million—those estimates might appear almost absurdly low, especially considering that they’re coming straight from the artist’s own studio. But according to Scott Niichel, Sotheby’s co-head of day sales for impressionist and modern art, the auction house has its reasons.
Why So Inexpensive?
The first is that many of these artworks are studies or experiments and thus don’t have an aesthetic that immediately screams “Picasso.” “In some cases, unless you’re quite educated in the trajectory of his career, you might not immediately recognize these works as Picassos,” Niichel said, noting that other works are “quite iconic.”
But those non-iconic lots could serve as a deterrent to some collectors. Take a 1914 watercolor of a fish, which Niichel said is one of his personal favorites. Its estimate: $5,000 to $7,000, or about the price of a business-class flight from New York to London. Painted at the height of Picasso’s cubist period, “it’s a very kind of realistic depiction,” he said. “Works such as this one are such an aberration from what he’s best known for.”
Another major hurdle is that while most of the works are dated, many of them don’t carry the precious Picasso signature, which Niichel acknowledged could depress the works’ prices. Similarly, “in many of the cases with the works on paper, the dates are on the verso of the sheets, and not front and center,” he said, a potential further deterrent to high-spending collectors.
Don’t Get Too Excited
Finally, there’s Sotheby’s itself: “We of course like to set estimates that are approachable for our sales,” Niichel said. “We don’t want to jinx ourselves.” In other words, if the auction house were to price the lots higher, people might sit the sale out; with low estimates, collectors might come to the sale (and bid on the objects) if they think they’ll get a bargain.
And at the current prices, bargains abound, particularly in the case of the ceramics. Picasso made upwards of 4,000 unique ceramic objects and chose 633 of them to turn into editions (that is, repetitions of the same work that are numbered and limited to a certain certified quantity). Those editions have recently become hot commodities, with pieces selling for more than $230,000.
Most of the ceramic objects in this sale, however, are unique objects, yet many of their estimates are well below their editioned counterparts: A plate depicting what appears to be an enraged owl is estimated at $18,000 to $25,000; another plate with one of Picasso’s signature bulls is expected to fetch from $25,000 to $35,000.
“This is a sale where there’s something for just about anyone who has an interest in Picasso,” Niichel said. “And yes, of course, there are examples in the sale that might sell very, very well and go to longtime collectors. But there are also opportunities for collectors who are new to the market.”