A rare Picasso canvas from the painter's Rose period could set an art-world sales record with a hammer price of as much as $100-million (U.S.) when it goes up for auction on Wednesday evening at a blockbuster single-owner sale at Sotheby's in New York. The event kicks off the spring season of Impressionist and modern-art sales.
Garçon à la pipe, which Picasso painted in 1905 at age 24 shortly after moving to Paris, is one of the few works from the artist's Rose period to remain in private hands, and is considered one of his masterpieces of the period. It carries a presale estimate of $70-million (U.S.), but those sniffing the gathering winds in the art world suggest it could easily eclipse the record of $82.5-million set in 1990 by van Gogh's painting of his physician, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, perhaps reaching as high as $100-million.
The most expensive Picasso sold at auction, Woman with Crossed Arms (1901-02), from his Blue period, sold for $55-million in November, 2000, at Christie's in New York.
Garçon à la pipe is part of a sale of 34 lots originally from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, which also includes a Corot, a Monet, a Bazille, and Manet's Les Courses au Bois de Boulogne (1872), which carries a presale estimate of $20-million to $30-million.
The Whitneys picked up the Picasso in May, 1950, for $30,000.
The paintings are the property of the Greentree Foundation, a charitable institute dedicated to peace, human rights and international co-operation. It was created in 1982 by the philanthropist Betsey Cushing Whitney upon the death of her husband, John Hay Whitney, who had been the U.S. ambassador to Britain as well as the editor-in-chief and last publisher of The New York Herald Tribune. Mrs. Whitney died in 1998. She willed the paintings, along with the Whitney home in Manhasset, Long Island, to the foundation.
During her lifetime Mrs. Whitney sold Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette for more than $78-million in May, 1990. The Whitney family sold Cézanne's Rideau, cruchon et compôtier for more than $60-million in May, 1999.
The high expectations for next week's sale were evident during the opening days of exhibition at Sotheby's New York headquarters on the Upper East Side this week, as swarms of well-dressed collectors and buyers' representatives floated through the galleries. As they discreetly took notes and conferred with advisers, an unusually large security detail looked on. A number of collectors whispered that they expected the hammer prices to be much higher than the posted estimates. Not everyone thinks the hype is justified, however.
"I don't think any painting in the world is worth $100-million," said Picasso biographer John Richardson. He suggested the extraordinary projected price for Garçon à la pipe says more about the current makeup of the art market than about the quality of the art itself.
"I think that a lot of very rich people long to have a very fine Picasso, but they don't like Cubist paintings, they don't particularly like the later paintings, which are very sexual or very distorted." The Blue and Rose period paintings are safe and, "sort of scream Picasso from the wall. For a lot of very rich people, this is exactly the kind of painting they would like to have."
Garçon à la pipe, measuring 99.7 by 81.3 centimetres, is a melancholy portrait considered by some to be a bridge between the painter's Blue and Rose periods, dominated as it is by a rose backdrop of two flower bouquets and an adolescent dressed in blue. The boy is believed to be "p'tit Louis," a sort of early groupie often found at the artist's studio in the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, hanging around with "local types, actors, ladies, gentlemen, delinquents . . . ," as Picasso remarked.
The painting has a storied background. Picasso produced many sketches of p'tit Louis and apparently left the piece alone after painting the boy and the rose background. Out one night with friends, he heard a recitation of Verlaine's poem Crimen Amoris, which referred to a 16-year-old "evil angel" under a wreath of flowers. Picasso allegedly excused himself and went immediately back to his studio, where he painted the garland of flowers atop the boy's head, transforming him from a working-class youth into a French Symbolist figure laced with hints of myth and ambiguity.
The boy holds a pipe to his chest in his left hand, in an affectation of maturity. David Norman, a senior vice-president of Sotheby's, suggests it is not a stretch to see the painting as a metaphorical self-portrait. P'tit Louis is posed in Picasso's own blue workman's overalls. "Picasso depicts an adolescent, and here he is, a 24-year-old artist in Paris, at the dawn of the 20th century, and he's going to be the greatest artistic innovator," said Norman this week. "It's almost like the Mona Lisa. There's an expression that you can't pin down to have just one meaning."
The other important paintings of the period include Femme à l'eventail (1905), which was donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington by the Averill Harriman Foundation, and Jeune fille nue avec panier de fleurs, which is part of David Rockfeller's collection and is promised to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A wealth of zeroes
Picasso's Garçon à la pipe may sell next Wednesday for $100,000,000 (U.S.). Here are some other things the prospective buyer could spend the money on instead:
One new opera house in downtown Toronto
15,625 pounds (or 7,087 kilograms) of gold
One six-album recording contract with Whitney Houston
Four years of ball-playing by New York Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez
One Adam Sandler movie, including production and marketing costs
1.5 million hepatitis-B vaccines for children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia
One day of Iraqi occupation by U.S. forces