Boom time for Picasso Inc.

One name dominates the art market, with his paintings soaring in value and remaining a solid investment

Art
Enigmatic and unsettling: “Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl with a Flower Basket)”, 1905, by Picasso, sold for $115 million (©  BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Picasso once claimed: “I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” It was not, however, something he ever put into practice. He had a period of poverty in the first decade of the 20th century when he was making his name and living and working in rickety circumstances halfway up the butte of Montmartre, but his name was quickly made and the money followed. With his pockets full, poverty seemed rather less chic — especially since he had a penchant for luxurious chattels — including a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza limousine, two châteaux, three houses, assorted wives and lovers and, at his death in 1973, the whopping sums of $4.5 million in cash and $1.5 million in gold and stocks.

If he was rich beyond imagining during his life, his posthumous wealth is of an altogether higher level. Since 1998, the cumulative yearly sales of his work have consistently topped the $100 million mark (indeed since 2004 they have only twice dropped below $200 million), with peaks in 2014 of $445.7 million and in 2015 of $655.2 million. For the best part of 20 years he has been the most valuable artist at auction, with clear blue water between him and Andy Warhol (the next most consistently high performer) and everyone else in the history of art.

Along the way, he has set various auction records and sold more works in the $100 million-plus band — the commercial art world’s elite measure — than any other artist: five to Modigliani’s three and Pollock and De Kooning’s two each. Only last year, his Young Girl with a Flower Basket, an unsettling and enigmatic 1905 Rose Period nude from the David and Peggy Rockefeller collection, fetched $115 million. Indeed, while that picture was being auctioned in New York, 16 further paintings dating from 1908 to 1970 appeared at the major spring sales in London, where they collectively raised some £164 million.

What is curious about Picasso is that two of the greatest determinants of price — rarity and a signature style — don’t apply to him. Picassos arrive on the market in huge numbers, and there are plenty to go round: one estimate puts his lifetime output at some 50,000 works, comprising 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 12,000 drawings, and multiple thousands of prints and innumerable ceramics. And while his work falls into distinct periods — Blue, Rose, Cubist, classical, etc — no one style dominates as does, say, a Warhol screenprint of the early 1960s or a Modigliani nude c 1917.

Among the most expensive of Picasso’s works are one of the 15 variations he painted as a homage to Delacroix, Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”), made in 1955 and which went in 2015 for a then world record price of $179 million; Le Rêve, a portrait of his sensually sleeping new lover Marie-Thérèse Walter (he was 50, she was 22), painted in 1932 which made $155 million in 2013; and Garçon à la Pipe, a portrait of a garlanded boy smoking against a floral backdrop of 1905 that made $104 million in 2004.

Picasso’s patron Gertrude Stein once wrote of his work: “This one was always having something that was coming out . . . that was a solid thing, a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a simple thing, a clear thing, a complicated thing, an interesting thing, a disturbing thing, a repellent thing, a very pretty thing.” She knew, in other words, that there was a Picasso for everyone.

If his auction life is lively, so too is his exhibition life. Last year saw, as usual, any number of shows — large and small — around the world, with Picasso: Blue and Rose at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern being the most high-profile. Visitor numbers for 2018 have yet to be released but a 2017 exhibition, Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica at the Reina Sofía Gallery in Madrid, attracted a staggering 681,127 viewers.

“Give me a museum and I’ll fill it,” Picasso once said, and it is clear he wasn’t boasting. There are already four Picasso museums — in Paris, Antibes, Barcelona and Málaga — and Catherine Hutin-Blay, the daughter of the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, was recently given the go-ahead to open a fifth, in Aix-en-Provence (due in 2021), to show 1,000 of the more than 2,000 Picassos she owns.

In one of his more reflective moods, Picasso stated: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” While fashion undoubtedly plays a part in his appeal, others clearly find that his art washes whiter than most. Many collectors are drawn by a combination of the two. As Jeremiah Evarts, the former head of Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and Modern department, recently put it pragmatically: “You’re dealing with one of the most recognisable names in art history . . . I can’t imagine an artist I’d rather have my money in than Picasso.”

Picasso also said: “I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.” He meant his art, of course, and regardless of whether his work appeals to you personally, he was one of the most transformative artists of all: an indefatigable dreamer-upper of an endless stream of novel forms in paint, clay and plaster and on paper. He himself became something else too; from just one of a great number of talented figures jostling for space in early 20th-century Paris, he muscled his way to top dog status — a celebrity, the focal point of debates on modern art and, along the way, an industry that is so robust that it continues to prosper and self-perpetuate nearly 50 years after the appearance of the last work from its CEO’s hand.