Picasso's 'Les Femmes d'Alger', at auction 1997, when it sold for $31.9 million (Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
In June 1956, the American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz purchased the complete series of Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger from his canny Parisian dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler. The 15 paintings had been offered for 80 million francs, or about $213,000—nearly $2 million in today's dollars. After counter-offering 70 million francs, hoping for what is now the art world's standard 10 percent discount, Victor Ganz was rebuffed and agreed to the full amount. The Ganzes were Picasso's most ardent collectors in the States, and Kahnweiler convinced Victor Ganz that the artist would only consent to a sale which kept the full group together, though Picasso would express surprise when the couple mentioned this to him years later. In the midst of negotiations, however, Ganz thought it was all or nothing. Adding to the pressure, Kahnweiler had intimated there was another buyer who was eager to acquire all 15 paintings. The consequence was that if Ganz didn't have the nerve and the money, they would surely go to someone else.
By raising the specter of a rival buyer—whether or not anyone was actually waiting in the wings—Kahnweiler used a tried-and-true tactic to seal the deal. But it was the Ganzes who won out in the end. Having purchased the series, they would subsequently sell ten of the 15 paintings, recoup much of the money spent, and keep five of the more important works for themselves. (Perhaps the very best, at least as far as Picasso was concerned, Version N, the next-to-last in the series, had been let go, and is now in the collection of Washington University's museum in St. Louis.) In 1997, 40 years after their historic purchase, the series's final painting, Version O, for which they had paid $26,632, was sold at auction by their heirs for $31.9 million. That painting is now coming back on the market, to be offered at Christie's in New York on May 11. With a pre-sale estimate of $140 million, it is poised to set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.
For this distinction, it will have to best Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which fetched $142.2 million just 18 months ago. The previous top seller was a version of Edward Munch's iconic painting The Scream (1895), a pastel on board acquired in 2012 by Leon Black, founder of Apollo Global Management, for $119 million. The other three versions of the Munch, all in Norwegian museums, will likely never be carried off, silently screaming, to the auction block.
Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which sold for $142.2 million (AP Photo/Christie's Images LTD.)
Bringing Home the Bacon
When the Bacon triptych was sold, an article on Forbes.com explained how such a stratospheric price had been achieved, giving every indication that this sort of money paid for modern masters is now the norm:
As the ultra-wealthy become even wealthier, the top-end of the art market, along with real estate and other luxury sectors, have experienced an incredible surge as cash is being channeled into alternative investments... If the Forbes 400 is any indication, the wealthy are getting wealthier, with the 400 richest Americans now worth a cumulative $2 trillion, up $300 billion from a year ago and with an average net worth of a record $5 billion, an $800 million increase from a year ago.
While these paintings are among the most expensive to be sold at public auction, they are not the most expensive privately traded. It was recently reported that Rudolf Staechelin, a retired Sotheby's executive, had sold, for $300 million, an 1892 Gauguin painting, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), from a collection assembled by his grandfather in Switzerland during the first World War. While the buyer was not identified, it was widely rumored to be the State Museums in Qatar. They had previously spent nearly $250 million for The Card Players (1892-93), an Impressionist masterpiece by Cezanne—one of five devoted to this subject, and the only one held in private hands. With phenomenal wealth surging from their oil and gas fields, the royal family of the Persian Gulf nation has set its sights on assembling a world-class collection. In addition to these masterworks, paintings by Mark Rothko and Damien Hirst have gone to Qatar. (Though it troubles the mind to consider these works ending up in the same room, let alone the same sentence.) The ever-escalating sums attached to these paintings inevitably exceed, doubling and tripling, the previous prices paid. And for $300 million, wouldn't you expect that a Gauguin would come with an actual Tahitian island? Art, real estate, and money forever entwined.
(L) Alien Workshop x Andy Warhol Skate Decks(R) Gaugin, Nafea Faa Ipoip
What reporters for Forbes.com may not fully grasp, though critics and dealers in the art world, as well as art historians, certainly do, is that the status of certain artists, having their place in the history books, is set in stone, while for others, whose paint is barely dry, the jury is still out. Contemporary art is, in this respect, temporary, and history will not be rushed along. Not by the market speeding forward, and not by those who, as the old saying goes, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. From Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Klimt to masters in our time, a pantheon including Picasso, Pollock, de Kooning, Johns, and Warhol, there is absolutely no doubt as to importance and influence. If there's a speed bump encountered, it would be in the Warhol fast lane, where second- and third-rate works manage to fetch prices higher than they deserve, thanks to collectors and dealers who are ultimately buying and selling the name more than the art itself. Who knows, maybe one day "the worst of Warhol" will elbow out his iconic work, having been cheapened by a vast proliferation of tote bags, umbrellas, skateboards, and sweat pants—$29.90 at Uniqlo. Or maybe all this crass merchandise strengthens the brand? Have you seen any Pollock skateboards lately? Of course an action painter who died an action death may not be the best endorsement for a set of wheels. Warhol painted the car crash. Pollock died in one.
But maybe history can be rushed along, and in that racing toward the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the reality of what's happening—art and its value being hijacked—will pass by almost unnoticed in a hazy blur. Maybe "jury selection" has something to do with these skewed verdicts. The May 11 auction, in which Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger will serve as the shining star, is being organized by Loic Gouzer, an "International Specialist" at Christie's. In a recent New York Times article about the sale, Gouzer is quoted saying:
"I recently went to the reopened Picasso Museum and was blown away by what I saw. In a world where your latest iPhone is out of fashion in 10 days, everything he did still looked so relevant and fresh."
He was blown away. Everything was fresh. The article ends with the 34-year-old art expert posting an Instagram image of a Picasso portrait from 1938, with an estimate of $50 million, which will be included in his sale. Thirty-four going on 14? Did he just whizz by on a Picasso skateboard as he posted that $50 million Instagram? With that kind of money up for grabs, Christie's can afford to be a tad embarrassed as they appeal to a newly-minted clientele. On the one hand, to trend-conscious clients who know the name first and the art last, while on the other, to collectors of contemporary art—works not yet in the history books, and maybe never will be—who have the means to move upwards to the giants of modern art. Secure and riskier investments. These are what's being leveraged. Artworks that may or may not be worth the canvas they're painted on, in particular those of more recent vintage, are being buoyantly uplifted by theses hundred million dollar prices. They reason: If pantings by Cezanne and Gauguin can command $250 to $300 million, why can't a Peter Doig sell for $15 million? Or a Kehinde Wiley for $5 million? (Artists of color, like women artists, rarely achieve—or only post-mortem—the lofty prices awarded to their pasty-faced brothers.) As great masterworks ascend to the upper atmosphere, and lesser works become over-inflated, the updraft allows even the most bloated hot-air balloons to rise accordingly. This is the Emperor's New Art.
Money—Now You See It, Now You Don't
Back down on Earth, a question inevitably presents itself: Does someone who buys a painting for $140 million simply take out their checkbook and ask for a pen? (Mont Blanc's $730,000 Ball-Point would do nicely.) Do they swipe their American Express Centurion? Do armored cars from Brinks pull up in front of Christie's or Sothebys, laden with gold bars? No. The money is transferred from one account to another as if by magic, a sleight-of-hand that has become absolutely normal, even unremarkable today. Money, in its abundance, is the new abstraction. Money is the immaterial object with which to accumulate material goods. Whether laundered or not, with art in the spin cycle, money is simultaneously there and not there. But the mirage suggested by the evanescence and evasions of the ultra-rich applies to us all. Many working people receive their salaries by direct deposit. There's no paycheck to be cashed, no waiting in the long line at the bank. The money appears in their account. And checks aren't written to pay monthly bills. Bills are paid automatically. There may, however, be a greater price for this increasingly suspect convenience. Money flows in and out without ever being physically in hand. It's as if you never had it to begin with, and maybe you never will. Even a pack of gum is routinely paid for at the corner deli with a debit card. One blows bubbles with invisible money. You don't have to grudgingly give spare change to the panhandler in the street because you don't have any. Tips are now entered—with amounts readily suggested—on a touch screen, rather than dropped into an old-fashioned jar. Apparently tips are bigger when they're electronically at one's fingertips. Wasn't it once true that the police couldn't charge a person with vagrancy if they had a minimum of $20 on them? Money as a form of I.D.—preferably a crisp Andrew Jackson and not 20 grubby singles—or at least as a guarantor to be left alone by those who protect and serve. (The potential for harassment is always in a sense a confrontation momentarily deferred.) And yet a sinister reversal may soon emerge, as if from the pages of Philip K. Dick, a future in which possessing cash will be criminalized, and the illusion of freedom, fluidity, and mobility will be just that. In a world where these pieces of plastic and the machines that read them can be switched off in an instant, an entire city can be immobilized. Imagine this lasting for days, or a week. Would martial law be declared? Would people take to the streets or roll over and play dead? A money-less culture ushers in the ultimate opportunity for social control.
(L) Buddhas of Bamiyan, before and after (R) Militants attack ancient artifacts with sledgehammers in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo via militant social media account)
The Picasso painting raises another obvious question. What does $140 million buy or represent? An oceanfront estate in the Hamptons, the NFL's salary cap, the net worth of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson—whose fortune is owed less to his music and mostly to his sale of Vitamin Water in 2007. Do you actually feel better drinking Vitamin Water? Do you feel more intelligent sipping Smart Water? Or are you simply devoted to making others exorbitantly wealthy, richer than you'll ever be? Let's drink a toast, then, with some Kona Nigari Water from Hawaii, sourced at a depth of more than 900 feet, and $400 a bottle. Of course, if you were stranded in the middle of the Qatari desert and about to expire, you'd settle for a canteen filled with tap water. Off in the horizonless distance, you might think you were seeing things. Four enormous steel monoliths, 50 feet high, dwarfing the camels of passing caravans. This would be Richard Serra's East-West/West-East, a commission for which he was paid an undisclosed sum. Now the reason why the price would not be revealed—as if it was a state secret—is probably because it's so exorbitant that its revelation would further enrage critics of the world's richest country. (While monthly average household earnings are nearly $20,000, Qatar relies on migrant workers whose employment amounts to indentured labor, and in which they may be held eternally captive. They earn on average $300 per month, at jobs for which they were forced to pay excessive "recruitment fees.") Designated as a permanent installation, the Serra sculpture has appeared in a moment and in a part of the world where great monuments of antiquity and artifacts have been destroyed—the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, manuscripts and artworks in Iraq's Mosul Library and Museum. In a violent, volatile time, is there any real guarantee of permanence? Maybe the only apparition that can be trusted is the Mirage fighter jet, produced by France, and sold to countries in the Mideast including Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft cost around $23 million, and while that may seem like a steep price to pay, the payload of a Mirage 2000 is more than 6 tonnes. That's a lot of firepower, with radar-guided, air-to-air and heat-seeking missiles. You can trade ten Mirage jets for a single painting by Cezanne.
With that exchange in mind, a nightmarish scene rears its terrifying head: a sequel to Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (cost $127 million, worldwide earnings $350 million, or the price of a great Gauguin). In the new movie, the Abu Dabi Louvre, having risen as if by the slave labor that built the Pyramids at Giza, is descended upon by a fierce army of fanatics and marauders, wantonly looting and burning the masterpieces rented out from their Parisian guardians, laying waste to the patrimony of France. Mirage jets scramble and, spectacularly, amidst all the chaos and confusion, bomb and destroy the museum and its priceless contents. Smoke billows and darkens the deep blue skies over the Persian Gulf... as the credits roll.
On May 11, what will be the fate of Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger—the Women of Algiers, an image of concubines? No doubt a packed room of art lovers and speculators will burst into thunderous applause as the hammer nails down a staggering price paid. But where will Les Femmes ultimately reside? Will a wire transfer in excess of $140 million be authorized by the Qatar National Bank? Will they join a nubile Tahitian girl in attending to The Card Players? That's quite a high stakes game. $140 million. Think about that the next time you fill the tank of your Chevy Suburban. After all, to the victor go the spoils.
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