Picasso Price Helps Paint a Prettier Picture for the Art Market

BY Hari Sreenivasan  May 6, 2010 at 2:32 PM EDT

A man stands between Pablo Picasso's 'Nude, Green Leaves and Bust'. Photo by Stan Honda/ AFP/ Getty Images

A man stands between Pablo Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ ®, 1932, and Henri Matisse’s ‘Nu au coussin bleu’ (L), 1924, on display April 29, 2010 at Christie’s in New York. Both are part of the collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody sold at the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale at Christie’s on May 4. Photo by Stan Honda/ AFP/ Getty Images

This week, the art market continued to show signs of recovery as leading auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their Impressionist and Modern art sales, setting records and at least tripling the total brought in by the same auctions last May.

Scoring the big headline — and earning the highest price for any work of art ever sold at auction — was “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” Pablo Picasso’s 1932 portrait of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. The bidding for the work (which shows a nude lounging on a sofa beneath a bust, and an intruding shadow thought to represent the artist) started at $58 million, but competition propelled it to the whopping and record setting final sale price of $106.5 million.

Its provenance added to its value: The painting came from the estate of Frances Brody, a Los Angeles art collector who filled her Modernist home (shared with her late husband Sidney) with masterpieces, but coveted and cherished the Picasso in particular. They bought the painting in 1951 and exhibited it only once in the U.S. in 1961. They were so protective that the Brodys would often hide the painting when visitors came to the house and forbade collectors and guests from taking color photographs of it.

The price for the Picasso helped bring in a total of $335.5 million for Christie’s on Tuesday, with 56 of the 69 works sold on the auction block.

Collectors from Asia helped Sotheby’s strong sale on Wednesday, earning $195.7 million for the auction house. Asian buyers snagged four of the top ten sellers of the evening, including two Monet’s: “The Effect of Spring at Giverny” for $15.2 million and the “End of the Afternoon, Vetheuil” for $6.2 million.

Sotheby’s top sale, grabbing $28.6 million, was a floral painting by Henri Matisse. Another work by the artist, a charcoal portrait from 1945 called “Souty,” more than tripled sale estimates, selling for $2.32 million. All told, Sotheby’s sold 50 of the 57 works up for auction.

“After a year of sobriety amid the recession, the art market’s titans are again chasing trophy paintings with a fresh tenacity, pushing up prices for a handful of coveted masterworks yet allowing lower-profile works to go unsold,” wrote Kelly Crow in the Wall Street Journal.

“Collectors — I often think about them as this beautiful, exotic flock of birds,” said Crow in a conversation with Art Beat. “They tend to veer and soar in sync…Now, what I think you are seeing is that they have seen a handful of huge prices — the [Alberto] Giacometti that sold for $104 million in February, and now this Picasso for $106 [million], and now it is just kind of reassuring everyone that paintings will sell.”

Listen to the full conversation with Kelly Crow:

Sculptures fared well, too. A bronze version of Auguste Rodin’s “Thinker” more than doubled its asking price after a bidding contest that finished at $11.8 million. It leaves the art world wondering if these good times will last and the rest of us speculating if the boom in the art market reflects better times to come for other sectors of the economy, or if it just means better times for a select few.

Wall Street seems to be paying attention: stock prices for Christie’s and Sotheby’s have tripled during the last year.