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Picasso painting sells for record $179 million, but are we all paying the price?

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The bidding began at $100 million. Beneath a poster of Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers,” Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen fielded bids from across the crowded room for the cubist masterpiece. The price leapt to $110 million, then $120 million. Soon it surpassed its $140 million estimate. By the time it reached $145 million minutes later, the painting was already the most expensive piece ever sold at auction.

The room grew quiet as the two remaining bidders dueled by telephone, each relayed bid drawing a gasp.

“At $160 million dollars ladies and gentlemen, fair warning,” Pylkkanen said before one final pause. “It’s yours!”

The crowd whooped and clapped at the winning bid, which, with fees, totaled $179.4 million: the GDP of some island nations. Many in the crowd filmed the moment on their cellphones. It was, Pylkkanen announced, “one of the greatest moments in auction history.”

But the day was just beginning for Christie’s. Over the next couple of hours, the auction house would sell more than half a billion more dollars worth of art, for a one-day haul of $705.8 million.

[The T. rex that got away: Smithsonian’s quiet quest for Sue at Sotheby’s ends with different dinosaur]

The orgiastic art sale was unprecedented, but it wasn’t particularly surprising. Instead, the towering sales prices were right on trend: the almost predictable outcome of an international art market so hot its paint is dripping.

This art market boom isn’t as pretty a picture as it seems, however. First, there are worries that it’s all a bubble that could burst at any moment. But then there are bigger concerns about the wider societal costs of such an inflated art scene.

The person who purchased Picasso’s masterpiece may be anonymous. But there are signs that we are all paying the price for such extravagant private auctions. Public museums can’t keep up with soaring prices. Now the magisterial “Women of Algiers” could disappear back into a dark mansion den or, even worse, a climate-controlled, tax-exempt airport warehouse until it has appreciated sufficiently in value.

There was a moment when this all seemed unlikely. It was Sept. 15, 2008. The same day that a batch of Damien Hirst’s bedazzled skulls and barn animals preserved in formaldehyde sold for $200 million at Sotheby’s, the bottom dropped out of the stock market. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, triggering an international recession.

Within a year, however, the market — or the art market, at least — had rebounded. Art sales have more than doubled since 2009, according to Bloomberg. Last year, auctions around the world totaled $16.1 billion.

The steady inflation of the art market can be summed up with a quick glance at the list of most expensive auctioned works. At number five is a Picasso that sold for $106.5 million in 2010. Number four is Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream,” sold for $120 million in 2012. A year later, Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” reached $142.4 million. And then there were the two heavy hitters from Monday’s auction: Picasso’s “Women of Algiers (Version O)” for $179.4 million and Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” for $141.3 million, which is the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction.

Then there are pieces hawked in private, such as the Paul Gauguin painting of two Tahitian girls that went for $300 million earlier this year.

Prices have risen so steeply recently that some art experts warn of a bubble. Last year, for example, an Israel Lund painting sold at Christie’s for $125,000 after selling for $7,500 a year earlier, according to Bloomberg. That’s an increase of 1,567 percent. Other young artists’ works are increasing at similar rates, making it almost impossible for museums to invest in future greats let alone compete for masters.

Take Christopher Wool’s “Apocalypse Now.” A painting appropriately about selling everything — its black letters on a white background read “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS” — its price rose an astronomical 350,000 percent in just 25 years, according to Bloomberg. Despite the claims of Pylkkanen, it seems pretty clear that some — perhaps most — of this surge is due to speculation. As an investment, art can deliver serious returns. It’s probably not a coincidence that the man who sold Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” on Monday was New York real estate magnate Sheldon Solow, according to the New York Times.

Museums, especially public institutions with budgets slashed during the recession, are having a hard time competing.

“It has always been hard for museums to compete with private collectors, but driven by the scarcity of great old works and an expanding class of wealthy buyers, the recent stratospheric rise of art prices has utterly outstripped most acquisitions budgets,” Lee Rosenbaum wrote — and that was in 2007, before the recession and before prices really got going.

This auction house insanity has riled many in the art community. In a piece published before Monday’s sale, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz described the dangers of ceding total control of the art market to auctioneers and anonymous buyers:

I walked into Christie’s in a state of strange pathos. Excited about seeing such great art; sad because it was displayed under these crowded conditions, and because I knew almost everything I saw might not be seen again in public. I felt, I’m finished complaining about auction houses. Yes, the people who work there love art as much as everyone in the art world loves art. But I do think they’re at the center of a storm that’s raging out of control and is wrecking terrible damage to the world they love by creating a filter that fakes one way but goes the other. Under the guise of so-called “quality,” auction houses fabricate a pervasive psychic field that sees art in terms of price and profit. This seductive shallow field forces collectors with similar work or similar -isms to rush the same artists and -isms to auction the following season to reap ever-higher prices. Auctions are not only doing this with historical material; they’re now doing it with contemporary art. And this has escalated prices for new work artificially, exponentially, and in ways that I think are bad for everyone and can’t possibly be sustained. It all seems fake. If only two people on the planet can be made to bid against one another for anything, a prospect easily arranged with the smoke and mirrors of auction spectacle, PR, and spin, then prices will spin upwards with only a tiny handful of people creating this updraft. Of course, artists, collectors, dealers, even auction houses should make money from art — I’m a capitalist, even if not a very successful one. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the prices for all art, masterpieces included but especially contemporary, recent, and new art, are completely out of whack and ridiculously overpriced. I am sorry, but it seems sick to me to see new artists selling art out of their first shows for between $30,000 and $40,000. Something’s gotta give. Good-bye, Picasso, I thought.

As Saltz points out, Picasso’s vibrant masterpiece — a painting that seems to vibrate with color and movement and packs more references to art history than most college courses — has barely been seen over the past 60 years. “Technically speaking, not factoring time on loan to exhibitions, “Women of Algiers” has only been on public view for the last ten days,” he writes. Unless the painting is auctioned again in a few years, it’s unlikely to be on display anytime soon.

As a result, some of the world’s greatest paintings are rarely, if ever, seen. In the case of “Women of Algiers,” we aren’t just missing out on a masterpiece. We are missing out on the painting’s incredible back story.

The painting was Picasso’s “barbaric response (in the best sense of the word)” to the works of Henri Matisse, Saltz writes. The rivalry — one of the most famous in art history — began in 1907 when Matisse painted his corpulent “Blue Nude,” a painting initially mocked as hideous by the public and dismissed as “a design” by Picasso, but quickly recognized as revolutionary by both.

“From at least then on, Picasso stalked Matisse’s every move,” Saltz writes. “In fact, ‘Women of Algiers’ was painted just 105 days after Matisse died. When asked why he turned to exotic odalisques and harems, subject matter long associated with the Frenchman, Picasso commented, ‘When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me.’ Matisse was sadly wise to this. Not long after Picasso paid him a studio visit in the South of France, Matisse wrote to his son that Picasso ‘saw what he wanted to see. Now he will put it all to good use.’ Imagine being dogged by this Spanish monster your entire artistic life. No wonder Matisse was always trying to get away.”

“‘As different as the north pole is from the south pole’ is how Matisse described Picasso and himself to Gertrude Stein,” wrote John Richardson in a 2003 Vanity Fair article on the rivalry. “He hit on a particularly dodgy paradox, for although the North and South Poles are antitheses, the icescapes surrounding them are indistinguishable. Matisse apparently wanted to emphasize that, while he was very much a man of northern France, Picasso was very much a man of southern Spain. Indeed, there seems to have been a magnetic pull between them, a yin-yang polarity that allowed for a constant shift in the roles of giver and taker, leader and follower, hero and antihero.”

Picasso vs. Matisse. Spain vs. France. Cubism vs. Fauvism. Throw in a dash of Eugene Delacroix — Picasso’s other main influence for the painting — and you’ve got an incredible story: one best told with a public exhibition. Although not impossible, Monday’s anonymous auction makes that unlikely. Billionaires increasingly own international politics. Now they hoard cultural heritage, too.

For all art lovers who don’t belong to the richest 1 percent, even a museum pass can be pricey. This morning’s headlines touting the sale of the world’s most expensive painting are probably as close as we’ll ever get to Picasso’s masterpiece.