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Christie’s Picasso sale saw prices soar; but the highest-priced lots were the least desired

Most of the unsold lots were high-value items unlikely to attract new buyers

Christie’s took a big risk with its first sale devoted to Picasso multiples. Two hundred and fifty lots of ceramics and prints were a huge amount of material to put on the block at once when the middle market is notoriously soft at the moment.

In the event, the Picasso brand name, combined with reasonable estimates, bought a raft of new buyers into the market who were previously unaware that Picasso’s prints could be bought for a few thousand pounds. Many of the late prints and the cheaper ceramics sold for well over their estimates, in the £3,000 to £5,000 range.

Interestingly, most of the unsold lots were high-value items unlikely to attract new buyers. As far as the prints were concerned, departmental head Richard Lloyd deliberately chose the majority of the works with estimates in the low thousands, some even as low as £1,000-£1,500. The result was the strongest prices seen since the boom years. “These were hefty retail prices,” said Richard Lloyd. “Clients could have found the same things with dealers for comparable or even lower prices.” The room was packed and as clients were outbid on one lot they decided to go for another, so the sale was very buoyant. The strong private buying probably makes this a one-off sale but will contribute to revaluation of these works in the long term,” he continued.

Late prints: reasonable prices

A high proportion of works were from Picasso’s two late series, 347 and 156, executed shortly before his death in 1971. Traditionally, these prints have not been as highly regarded as the earlier etchings of the Suite Vollard, and this, coupled with the fact there are so many of them, means prices are still extremely reasonable. Christie’s took advantage of this fact to bring a lot of new private buyers into the market.

Picasso’s involvement with his print-making was total. None of these works is reproductive and he was one of the most versatile and inventive print-makers ever known, constantly reinventing the rules and confounding the very best of the traditional print-makers he worked with. At the end of his life, he was living in the South of France and desperate to make prints. He persuaded the Crommelynck brothers, whom he had worked with in Paris, to set up a studio near him and worked furiously on these final plates until his death. In many ways, these prints can be considered his last great outpouring; intensely personal they are almost like a diary. The roles of man and women are reversed from the early Suite Vollard. Many of the prints are highly erotic, but here the woman is dominant and the man an impotent voyeur, reflecting Picasso’s own frustrations. Several dealers including Alan Cristea believe these are among Picasso’s greatest and most personal prints; he had no need of money at this stage and up to now they have been ridiculously undervalued. Picasso knew he was dying and these prints are filled with impulses and characters from the past. There are frequent references to Degas with whom Picasso in his frustration began to identify. Because they are among his last works they are also in excellent condition.

The Picasso print market is an interesting phenomenon. Including all the illustrations to books, his prints number some 4,000. Partly because he was so prolific, about 60% of the prints can still be bought for under £10,000. Very few fetch over the £100,000 mark and just two, “La femme qui pleure” and “Minotaure machie” have achieved iconic status. They are considered his masterpieces and now fetch up to £1 million. In contrast, his very first print, made in 1904 when he was only 23, recently fetched £450,000 at auction.

Apart from the very best prints, the market is still not back up to 1989-1990 levels. It is predominantly image-driven, and obviously some of the tougher erotic prints have a fairly limited appeal. Large female heads and the brightly coloured linocuts of which there are not very many are among his most popular works. However, interestingly, in this sale which was peppered with a handful of big lots, these were the prints which did not do so well, indicating how the sale was driven by first-time buyers. A linocut of a still life estimated at £45/£55,000 was unsold, as were two lithographs of Jacqueline Rocque estimated at £15/20,000. The top lot of the sale was a lithograph from the same suite which sold for its low estimate at £35,850. A touching print from La Suite Vollard, “Minotaure caressant une dormeuse”, also sold close to its low estimate at £23,900.

Beware of fake signatures

In the early years. many of the prints, especially from the Suite Vollard, were not signed, as were the uneditioned prints, so fake Picasso signatures can be a problem. In fact the last prints he ever made, the 147 series, were also unsigned and carry the Picasso estate stamp applied after his death. It is preferable to have no signature than a fake one. Although a signature does make a difference to the value of a print, it actually has no bearing on its quality or authenticity.

Ceramics spurred on by print prices

The Picasso ceramics fared equally well, perhaps spurred on by the success of the prints, with only five of the lots going unsold. Interestingly again, it was two of the top lots which failed to sell. Lot 158 was a large ceramic jug entitled “Tripode”, standing on three bulbous feet and decorated with a face. The large sculptural pieces are the most desirable and this one carried a £25/£30,000 estimate. A large vase, “Gros oiseau”, Picasso’ number one in an edition of 75 also failed to sell with an £18/£22,000 estimate. It was conceived in 1953 in an edition of 75.

The same pot, decorated with a design in green, conceived in 1960 and made in an edition of 25, sold for £17,925. The most expensive pot was a striking quartered vase with fish and bird designs in contrasting brown and white, which made its top estimate of £29,875.

The smaller plates and vases in the £3,000 to £10,000 range sold very well, with most of the pieces making well over their top estimates. According to Christie’s expert Deborah Park, these are very strong prices and probably back up to 1989 levels.

The ceramics are a more complex field than the prints and no one in the salerooms can provide a very clear explanation of Picasso’s role in their production. The ceramic editions were all made by the Ramié family in the Madoura workshop in Vallauris, southern France, where Picasso discovered the medium of clay. He created over 3,500 original pieces and, in return, Picasso allowed the Ramiés to make editions of his pieces.

These pieces were purely reproductive. Picasso approved the designs and the Ramiés set about producing them in editions, which varied from 25 to 500. The same shape could be decorated in a variety of ways, with the vessels being cast from moulds or hand thrown, and then all were hand decorated. Some are made posthumously, and the moulds are still at Madoura. All the pots were stamped or inscribed in a variety of different ways and given an edition number. But the various stamps which include “d’après Picasso”, “Edition Picasso” and “Empreinte originale de Picasso” do not seem to indicate greater or lesser involvement on the part of the artist and hence do not affect the value. In his catalogue raisonnée of the ceramic works, Alain Ramie illustrates and numbers every edition made, 633 in all. It appears that the pots are purely reproductive albeit to a very high standard, but these days design and branding are becoming more important than individual features.

These ceramics are hugely decorative and it takes an expert to distinguish them from an original work by Picasso which means that when and if they do come on the market, originals fetch several times as much as the editions. Most of the original pots remained with the Picasso Estate and are released on the market from time to time; several are with museums, which explains why they rarely come up at auction. When they do, they create huge interest.

Picasso Prints and Ceramics Christie’s London, 9 October

Sold by lot 93%

Sold by value 85%

Total £1,231,926 ($1,909,485)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ideal for new buyers'