Art market datapoint of the day, Picasso edition

By Felix Salmon
May 5, 2010
Holland Cotter today does a great job of disproving Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer's infamous maxim that "the best art is the most expensive, because the market is so smart".

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Holland Cotter today does a great job of disproving Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s infamous maxim that “the best art is the most expensive, because the market is so smart”.

His subject, of course, is the $106.5 million 1932 Picasso, which now holds the record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. But that doesn’t mean it’s especially good:

It’s an entertaining picture. Picasso was a born entertainer, a comic ham. I think that’s the reason for his immense popularity, though it’s not what’s great, meaning original, in his art. The seed of that is found in early Cubist painting and collage, with their shaking-apart structures, razor-sharp slices into space, and disorienting confusions of art, language, time and accident. Everything about that work was new and not easy, and still is.

“Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” and other paintings from its period are old and easy, art as usual. They keep to the known, the pleasure zone; they keep old orders firm, artist over subject, man over woman, woman as thing, a pink blob with closed eyes.

Carol Vogel speculates, unsurprisingly, that the buyer was one of a select group of alpha males:

Dealers said several prominent collectors were thought to be bidding on it, including Kenneth C. Griffin, chief executive of the Citadel Investment Group in Chicago; Leslie H. Wexner, the Columbus, Ohio, collector; Steven A. Cohen, the Connecticut hedge-fund billionaire; Joseph Lau, a Hong Kong collector; and Roman Abramovich, the Russian financier.

At these levels, buying art becomes trophy-hunting, a silly competition to see who can spend the most money. The main reason for the price is not quality but size: the painting is a good 20 square feet, much larger than any of Picasso’s cubist masterworks. The painting is instantly recognizable as a big Picasso, and it will surely make its buyer feel very rich and powerful every time he sees it. But the price has nothing to do with quality.

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