Picasso Carries Christie's to a Record

Pablo Picasso became king of the art-market hill again last night when his erotically charged 1932 masterpiece Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sold at Christie's New York to an anonymous telephone bidder for $106,482,500, becoming the most expensive artwork to sell at auction. Carrying a presale estimate in the $70-90 million range (available on request), the painting nudged past Albert Giacomettis L’homme qui marche I, a 1960 bronze sculpture that sold at Sotheby’s London in February for $104,327,006.

Bidding on the rarely-exhibited painting opened at $58 million and quickly motored along as the room and telephones exploded in a trophy quest. At least eight bidders lasted into the $80 million range in the contest, which ultimately turned into a three-way battle between Christie’s specialists bidding on behalf of clients on the phone. At one dramatic point, when the action had stalled at $89 million, Christie’s America chairman Marc Porter chairman pleaded with auctioneer Christopher Burge for “one more second” in the hope that his client would allow another bid. Burge, cool as a clam, said “sure.” The bid came, propelling the tally further up.

But it was Christie’s Old-Master specialist Nick Hall, as odd as that may seem, who took the winning bid at a hammer price of $95 million — at which point the packed salesroom burst into applause.

Among the posse of underbidders were two Christie’s alumni, private dealers Guy Bennett and Christopher Eykyn. Buttonholed afterward, Bennett said that the sale proved “there’s still an appetite for great things” and characterized the price for the Picasso as “fair” because the painting is “magestic and mesmerizing."

Reaching the $106.5 million mark when combined with the buyer's premium, the price was two million green leaves in excess of the previous Picasso auction record, held bythe 1905 Rose Period painting Garcon a la pipe that sold for $104,168,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2004.

The Picasso was part of a 27-lot single-owner sale from the collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody, a noted Los Angeles collector who assembled the horde in the 1950s and 60s from a small coterie of top-notch dealers in Beverly Hills, New York, and Paris, but who pointedly never bought at auction.The Brody group realized $224,177,500, with every selling, easily crushing the $140.6-193.3 million pre-sale estimate.

Combined with the various-owners’ portion of the sale, Christie’s turned in a $335,548,00 evening, shy of the $373 million high estimate. Overall, 56 of the 69 lots offered sold for a sell-through rate by lot of 81 percent and by value of 86 percent. Of the 56 lots that sold, 30 made over one million, and of those nine exceeded $10 million.

Impressively, Brody smashed the previous Christie’s single-owner sale record in New York, established when the Victor and Sally Ganz collection brought $206.5 million in November 1997. Last night's auction comes in second behind the mammoth Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Berge sale at Christie’s Paris in February 2009 that made $443 million (€342 million).

Sculpture also played a huge part in the evening’s fireworks, as another Brody trophy, Alberto Giacomettis craggy and austere Grande tete mince from a 1955 bronze cast (est. $25-35 million), sold for $53,282,500 to Guy Bennett, who was bidding on behalf of a European buyer. Bearing the strong likeness of Giacometti’s brother, Diego, who supervised all of the casting of his brother’s extraordinary oeuvre, the sculpture becomes the second most expensive Giacometti to sell at auction.

Two other Giacometti bronzes made the top-ten price roster in the marathon evening sale that lasted over two and a quarter hours, including La Main from 1948 (est. $10-15 million), which fetched $25.8 million, and the lissome Le Chat from a 1955 lifetime cast (est. $12-18 million) — a second Brody Giacometti — that sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for $20.8 million.

A trio of other Picasso entries in the top-heavy trophy sweepstakes did further to prove the Spaniard's mettle, including the late 1964 Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil (est. $10-15 million), which sold to Greek financier and Sotheby’s board member Dimitri Mavrommatis for $18 million. (I guess in this instance you can forget about the Greek debt crisis, or the fact that the Dow Jones dropped two percent in today’s trading.)

Buyers were equally divided between Europeans and Americans at 36 percent each, with a large portion — 24 percent — classified as “other,” meaning countries of the Middle East and Russia. Asia accounted for a tiny four percent of the lots sold.

Two other records were set apart from the 1932 Picasso, including Georges Braques late and stunning interior La Treille (1953-54), which had been bracketed at $3-5 million but snared $10,162,500. Then a rare-to-market Jean-Francois Raffaelli, the seedy 1881 Les buveurs d’absinthe (Les Declasses), sold to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco for $2,994,500 against an estimate of $400-600,000. It last sold at Sotheby’s for $62,500 in May 1977, at the British auction house's first Impressionist and modern sale in New York.

The Brodys had purchased the Raffaelli in 1955 from the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in New York.Four years earlier, the couple acquired Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, a painting that was virtually unrecorded and had narrowly missed being confiscated during World War II by the Nazis, who looted two tranches of artworks from the Rosenberg’s world-class inventory.The painting hung in the couple’s modernist Los Angeles home, traveling only once, to a UCLA exhibition in 1961 on the occasion of the artist’s 80th birthday.

That the market success at Christie's wasn’t simply a question of blind bidding was evidenced by the lukewarm showing of Henri Matisses underwhelming 1924 Nu au coussin blue (est. $20-30 million) — another Brody entry — that squeaked by at $15,090,500. The auction house was able to offload it at that low price because other guaranteed Brody works it had financed excelled.

The evening's major casualty was Edvard Munchs angst-free cover lot from the various-owners sale, Fertility, 1899-1900, which had been estimated at $25-35 million. It didn’t attract a single bid, and unlike other high-priced multimillion dollar lots in the sale, the painting did not have any financial guarantee from Christie’s or so-called third-party guarantors, as was the case for six of the big-game lots.

But by all other measures Christie’s pulled off a triumph, and as star auctioneer Burge aptly put it, the Picasso “was an extraordinary masterpiece." The evening action resumes on Wednesday at arch-rival Sotheby’s.