Picasso’s 1955 painting, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O),” just sold at auction for a record $US179.4 million.
Many observers are pointing to the sale as decisive evidence that there’s a massive bubble in the art world.
Or, like the New York Times’ Neil Irwin, they’re arguing that such eye-popping hammer figures prove that global wealth inequality is getting worse.
Who can afford to drop almost $US180 million on a painting, unless they’re one of 50 multi-billionaires? Irwin asks.
I have a slightly different take, having seen the painting in the private New York apartment where it lived before it was sold in 1997, for a rather more modest $US31.9 million.
Picasso painted 15 different versions of the work. The entire series was purchased by the collectors Victor and Sally Ganz in the mid-1950s. Price? About $US213,000 (roughly $US1.8 million in 2015 dollars).
In the late 1990s, the Ganz’s heirs auctioned the collection. At the time, I lived in New York, a short walk from the Ganz’s Upper East Side apartment. A friend of the family, and a friend of mine, knew that I liked art and especially Picasso and said that I had to visit the apartment before the collection was sold. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The friend was stunningly correct, as it turned out.
So one day I strolled over and spent about an hour talking with my friend, ringed by the “Les Femmes d’Alger” paintings. (In translation, by the way, it’s “The Women of Algiers”; and Picasso’s series was based on paintings that Eugène Delacroix created in the 19th century.)
The way the market for important modern art has evolved means that you’re unlikely to find yourself surrounded by lots and lots of an artist’s works. In the mid-20th century, passionate collectors of not necessarily immense means could pull together very significant troves. They would hang these works in their posh yet at-times surprisingly un-large homes.
Yes, these paintings eventually came to be worth a lot. But they were then less an asset class than a expression of taste. And while a taste for modernism is something now widely shared, in the early and even mid-20th century, it wasn’t. Collectors often bought because they simply loved the work.
“Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” shared wall space with its fellow paintings in the series, on its original collectors’ walls. It wasn’t then a trophy, but rather a statement of a sensibility. The apartment was like a book, and the room in which the “Les Femmes d’Alger” series resided was a chapter.
I was very, very lucky to see the paintings in one place. But it wasn’t like I was looking at tens of millions of dollars on the walls. The vibe was far more soothing than it was jaw-dropping or impressive. It was a story — a story about a couple blessed with a wonderful shared eye for art and an idea, a risky idea, about the future.
It’s not like this type of experience is gone for good. But to see significant numbers of certain works by certain artists, works that now fetch hundred of millions at auction, in less-than-over-the-top family homes — that’s a very 20th-century thing.
There’s also the element of chance embodied by extensive collections of artists who haven’t ascended to blue-chip status yet. Buying a whole bunch of Picassos wasn’t a completely irrational bet in the 1950s — the Spanish artist’s reputation by then was formidable — but it was somewhat irrational in the way that collecting a lot of any single artist is. You never know when fashions in the art world might change. The version of “Les Femmes d’Alger” that went for $US179 million was from Picasso’s postwar period, when the painter’s style had shifted from his Cubist pre-war works. A decade after the painting was completed, entirely different trends would seize the art world. In 1962, Andy Warhol would first exhibit a bunch of paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. Pop Art would be all the rage.
Obviously, dropping 179 million clams on a Picasso these days is probably a rational investment, if a very, very costly one. I just wonder if it comes with quite as much soul. And to be sure, because an anonymous private collector bought the work, I can be fairly sure I’ll never see it again.