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Friday, 06 November 2015


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I completely agree with you, Mike, and have had the same thought for years. Maybe it's because Picasso just made SO MANY paintings? Maybe at that point in his career he was so famous that anything with his name on it would sell, or perhaps later people dug the dregs out? I don't know the story, but I think there are even 'great' paintings of his with some weak passages in them.

Mike are you serious or have you been sampling the magic mushrooms,$40 million for a painting,to my mind if the got a few hundred for each they would be over rewarded.
Have a nice day.

My feeling about Picasso is that he was a great artist, but it got to the point where he could sell anything, he sold some stuff he should has circular filed.

I think the same thing happened to Salvador Dali, which was compounded by his caregivers late in his life having him sign blank sheets.


You have to be careful Mike, because somebody who openly dares to make such a statement:
"I've been trying to put forward for a while now (well, only in photography) the notion that the concept of a work of art isn't everything—it also has to be good to look at in some way."

might be considered a dangerous anarchist on the lookout to undermine the role of modern art in society in general, and in the wallets of who is peddling it in particular...

But at least the Picasso dame does or rather did have a conceptual impact. Thats why it was sold for five times more money than the most expensive photograph of all times - Rhein by Andreas Gursky - which is blatantly boring and fails to contribute even the slightest hint of conceptual novelty (let us ignore the Lik Antelope Canyon which may as well be a phantom sale)

Art aside, here's the answer for the central question of your post, Mike.

Q: When is $377 million in sales a disappointment?

A: When you've guaranteed Taubman's family $500 million to get the estate sale.

Re: Picasso, yes, the AIC is a good place to see some of his work although other museums have a richer selections of work from various periods in his life. He was one artist that really morphed radically several times. The big show of this season at MoMA as I write this, for example, is of his SCULPTURE. (Apparently he did not subscribe to the "pick-and-stick" advice. He followed "pick-and-pick-again". Honestly, the most practical way to take-in Picasso is via some good books. Seeing some of his works, such as Guernica, in-person is a wonderful experience. But contemporary graphic arts easily reproduces his fairly flat colors well.

Is a Modigliani portrait better? I'd not put so much stock in auction sales. They're heavily influenced by so many extraneous factors. Which of the two paintings above would I rather have? The Modigliani. I'm a fan of the work. As an old tv and film buff I noticed Modiglianis, or facsimiles, appearing in set designs since the 40s and 60s. I was delighted when I finally learned who the artist was and actuall saw some of his works. So I've had a soft spot for good ol' Amadeo most of my life. But

Re: is "concept" enough of a passport for a work of art? Sure. Art needs no raison d'etre. Trying to create audience-pleasing art leads to decorative stuff such as still-lifes of fruit and bucolic landscapes.

But the real issue here is money. We live in an age of great concentrations of wealth, more than ever. Art can be a terrific shoebox to preserve and grow wealth (also very risky).

With one exception, the difference in utility between an original Rembrandt and a copy of the same Rembrandt made by a talented student or forger* is minimal. There is no way to know which is which without expert knowledge. The exception, of course, is the prestige attached to the fact that one was touched by someone famous and the other wasn't.

The difference is even more stark when you're talking about the premium that some will pay for a signed and numbered edition over an unlimited, unsigned edition, a signed and numbered first edition over a signed and numbered second edition, or even a specific number in a numbered limited edition.

I don't see this as much different than a teenager who won't wash his or her hand after having shaken the hand of an actor or singer that he or she idolizes.

Since I'm not much of an autograph collector, I'm afraid I'm not much interested in paying a significant premium (for my purposes, that would include 8-digit premiums 8-) ) for the original. Others value the prestige rather higher.

* The only difference between a student and a forger is that one tries to pass off his work as that of the original creator to get the autograph premium.

Picasso is the holy cow of art world. The biggest. What ever he did has to be great. I think it was Axel Munthe who said "You do not have to learn architecture, you eyes will tell you if it is right or wrong". We have stopped trusting our eyes when it comes to art. Especially so when it comes to Picasso. To my untrained eye all distortions look like distortions.

As I'm sure we all realise, the money does not reflect the value of the 'art', but its potential as an investment vehicle.

Traditionally the rich have invested their (ill-gotten?) gains split more or less evenly 1/3 each into gold, art and land.

I had to look up 'fake billionaire' mentioned in a previous post. He would have gone for the Picasso.

+1 for Modigliani. Love his stuff...really loved his work's representation in "The Moderns" (my favorite movie).

Thanks to a local exhibit of Picasso paintings a few years ago, I have found that unless you are viewing the actual painting, not a reproduction--and certainly not a JPEG on a computer dispay---you are not viewing the original work, and are not qualified to make any judgements about it.

I find estimations of value in paintings fascinating, mostly for what it says about the art market and the 'Emperor's new clothes' phenomenon that seems inseparable from contemporary art.

When it comes to quaint notions like painterly skill, draftsmanship and attention to craft, there's a yawning chasm between the works of Picasso and his successors and the previous generation of painters. By the late 19th century, painters like Joachin Sorolla, Anders Zorn or John Singer Sargent had reached an extremely high level of technical proficiency and skill with the materials. Such works still attract the admiration and attention of aspiring amateurs. From Picasso and Pollock on down, it seems to be far more about the clever conceit than technical skill, and such ideas have completely taken over contemporary art. Hence folks like Damien Hirst can use an assembly line of art students to crank out their actual products without fear of reproach.

I agree completely. The name of an artist is often worth more then the art of the same artist.
All artists produce duds, famous artists produce duds worth more money* than masterpieces produced by unknowns.

*to investors hoping to resell said "art" as opposed to just enjoying the art for its own sake.

Couldn´t agree more; the Picasso is ghastly. But then isn´t this is all about art as investment, and the question therefore is why is Picasso´s status apparently slipping.

Some guy hangs Picasso's Femme assise sur une chaise in his office.
Client "Hey is that a Picasso?"
Some guy "Yup"
Fee goes up 20% , it pays for itself in a few weeks, and it's tax deductible as an expense.

Other than that I can't imagine why someone would want it.
I'd rather have a photo BY Dora Maar than that painting OF her.

Someone should do a book of various artists portraits of her and her own work.

Dora Marr kicks ass, Man Ray did the best portraits of her I think.

Eye of the beholder! To my untrained eye, neither painting is worth 1/10th or possibly 1/1000th the selling price. I wouldn't hang either one on my limited wall space. Of course much art isn't bought to be hung on a wall, it is bought as an investment.

I wrote too soon....it seems that Picasso is still worth a big buck or two. According to the BBC "La Gommeuse achieved the top price of $67.5m at Sotheby's, as part of their Impressionist & Modern Art sale on Thursday."

Some variations in the viewing angle, et voilà!




We're in the same period 1937 to 1938. All the creative power of Picasso breaks out here, and his absolute mastery of drawing and painting, to say nothing of the perspective.

A further insight to appreciate the full dimension of Picasso: his passion for Ingres. Just look at this:

Madame de Senonnes By Jean Dominique Ingres :


...and go back to the other portraits by Pablo. I'm sure everything will be clearer.

Immediacy has never been a virtue in the artistic field. Nevertheless Modigliani is a great painter for sure...absolutely!

Apparently the second day improved. More later.

Well, I'll take the Modigliani. In part because my taste in this case coincides with yours.

But more importantly because it would sell for more, and I could buy a great deal of contemporary art I like better - and a building to house it.

Art is always a matter of taste, some mixture of truly personal with a greater or lesser overlay of collective.

I concur with your observation, I will pay $10 for the Picasso and $20 for the Modigliani.

Compare and contrast with some photographic portraits that place the subject in context (all by Bill Brandt):

Dylan Thomas:


Henry Moore:


Francis Bacon:


Rene Magritte:


Robert Graves:


I’d rather have a Brandt print than one of those two paintings.

The value of art seems to have far more to do with who painted it than the merits of the piece. Is any artwork really worth $50 million? Only if a collector is willing to pay that much.

The price of original condition vintage cars is a good example. Price depends on rarity, originality and condition, not on whether it is a good car or not.

In fact 'merit' in the art world is a somewhat confounding business at the best of times, even if I happen to agree with you about Picasso and Modigliani in this instance. It was one of Picasso's duds, but he was famous enough to sell anything he painted.

The Picasso reminds me of the restoration Mr Bean did to the portrait of Whistlers mother in the comic movie Mr Bean in America of a few decades ago.
Totally agree with you that an object can have greater value for how it is represented than for what is represented.

Did you just diss Pablo?

I think it has nothing to do with being a 'good' painting or not so good. A blank paper with couple of pencil lines drafted by Picasso (or Matisse, or....) would raise 1000x more money than a very nice landscape painted by an unknown artist.
That is why the unknown artist is much better value for money if you want a nice painting on your wall. But most likely, the Picasso will be more valuable in ten or fifty years time because the number of his paintings and pencil scribblings on blank sheets of paper is limited. The number of nice landscapes painted by unknown artists is unlimited.

L'Homme au doigt sold for US$141.3 Million earlier this year.

Thank you Mike I just saved both images to my phone for free.
Jpeg's are fine for my viewing pleasure.

Where Art meets Beauty - they be treacherous waters Cap'n Mike!

I've always felt that Picasso was a self indulgent, ego-centric money maker. He was apparently competent and this enabled him to indulge in the styles of many others. I saw an exhibition of his work in Germany once where each of his displayed works was situated next to a similar work by another artist.
As a businessperson I would have done the same, develop the product to meet market needs, refine it based on feedback and then try to dominate the market.

Picasso is of course a much more important and influential painter than Modigliani. He produced a lot more work and in many different styles, where Modigliani has one. On modigliani-foundation.com you can find 482 paintings. The number of only the number of stolen Picasso paintings exceeds 1100. Not to mention the enormous amount of false Picasso’s that are circulating. All this influences the prices enormously.
You can buy Picasso prints for less than $1000, but recently Christie’s sold Women of Algiers for more than $179m. Same artist and maybe even the same artistic level.
A matter of supply and demand.

Picasso was hugely prolific. And I really mean hugely. He had an astounding output. Depending on who you believe some 45 -60,000 works during his lifetime. Within that there are some real duds. A walk through the Picasso museum can confirm that. I think the lesson we can learn from him is the importance of "doing it". Going to the studio in his case almost every day and working. What I learnt after going through the museum was the need to edit and cull. I kind of wished he had.

And that Modigliani looks luscious. Even as a web jpeg.

I like both the paintings and find both interesting. I'm not sure I would want to visit either of them everyday or even once a week. I think the geometry in Picasso's painting says more to me than the 'profile where you can see both eyes' part of it which I think he did better elsewhere (often). The Modigliani works better for me because it tells me more (I think) about what the artist thought about the personality of the subject. I'm not sure that aspect of paintings of the human figure is has to be the most important.

Who really cares, collectors apart, about prices, except as a way to measure what collectors currently lust after?

There are a fair number of very, very wealthy people out there. Many of them like to collect things for whatever reason and may not have any strong emotional feeling for what they're buying. Something may just be "cool", or they're using consultants to help them build important collections. This includes all sorts of "collectibles", like cars, cameras, professional sports teams, etc. Some folks just like to buy stuff just because they can.

I like the Picasso more, but I'm just a photographer not a blogger, so what do I know. :)

Picasso was a clever opportunist. Once he discovered how naïve people could be he fed them what they wanted ...

Having easy regular access to the Orsay, Louvre, Orangerie, and many other European museums, I've looked long and hard at art from the late-1800's and 1900's. I still don't "get it."

There are reasons why painting has become what it has. That is to say increasingly abstract. Yes, photography had a huge impact on traditional painting. But knowing these things doesn't mean any of it makes sense to viewers like me.

With auctions like this, all I see are paintings being consumed by the Very Well Heeled. These same Very Well Heeled are _not_ backing current generations of artists through patronage. Recent history seems to be traded at a rather steep price.

To me, 20th century art needs to be explained to be understood and experienced. By contrast, the art of Vigee le Brun, Rubens, Valasquez, or Raphael require no explanation. The experience of their art is complete and fulfilling as a viewer.

Picasso is a force in motion. Watch la gommeuse - 1901 (blue period):


to measure the path traveled by the artist in 35 years to Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse.

He advance aesthetically,pictorially, during his whole life, but he himself does not know where he is going, and that's why he painted so much, and he can neither stop nor stagnate. The blue period is only a starting point. If Picasso stops advancing Picasso no longer exists as a man and as a painter. The opposite of these rentiers of art that live their entire lives on the same bonanza.

Mike, if possible, show la gommeuse to everyone just for the fun!

Note to the 1%ers: you can't bitch about hyperinflation in real estate and then whine about underperforming art prices.

@Christopher Mark Perez: By contrast, the art of Vigee le Brun, Rubens, Valasquez, or Raphael require no explanation. The experience of their art is complete and fulfilling as a viewer.

If only! Classical portraits may appear to be more direct and less challenging than those of the Modern era. But many of the most renowned pieces by the artists you listed are positively loaded with background and symbolism. Further, the post-production histories (often post-mortem the artist) can be even richer, as ancient photo-shopping such as in-painting and croppings attempted to revise the sitter's image. (Conservation studies of these paintings is absolutely fascinating!)

So while a Reubens subject might appear more buxom and human than Pablo's or Amadeo's the path to full appreciation of the work may be far longer! Indeed, it's been my observation that long-time collectors of both modern and classical works are nearly unanimously most fascinated in the rich histories that their pieces represent. Further, while the valuation of many pieces seems absurd to us onlookers they're often propelled as much by histories than scarcity.

OT alert!
Don't know much about art, but nowhere in the welcome-to-NY messages do I remember one mention of the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo for 20th century painting.

Mike, Picasso himself beat you to the punch. A buyer of a Picasso painting asked to have a painting signed. Picasso agreed requesting it be brought to his studio. The conversation then went as follows.

“Sorry I won’t sign that, it’s a fake.”

“But I saw you paint it!”

“Yes, I paint a lot of fakes.”

Someone as prolific, adventurous and promiscuous in their influences as Picasso is bound to have highly variable output.

A few days ago, I listened to an NPR story, http://www.npr.org/2015/10/22/450769874/do-e-signatures-change-how-people-think-of-documents that had to do with the differences in psychological reactions to physical signatures versus electronic signatures. There's a significant difference in people's willingness to lie when signing electronically. This resonated with me as it affects the perceived value of art works. There's something very deep in our brains that finds significance in something physical that the artist touched that doesn't carry through to even an exact copy of the same work. This might be particularly evident in something like prints made on a digital printer. A print either made by the artist (that is, the artist clicked on the "print" icon) or signed by him/her will inevitably carry more of the mystical quality of connection than a print made by someone else and not signed. And that's part of the Picasso's value. Picasso is widely acknowledged as a very great artist. Something touched by him, carries this link to the artist, and that quality, hard as it is to quantify, and invisible in the actual painting (since an exact copy would not carry it) is nevertheless real and valuable.

Great presentation and question ...

I doubt that the responses you receive would be as coherent or focused had you posed this question to a class of art students ... non-photo at any of the major schools today.

The Modigliani portrait has warmth color a sense of light and perspective and an intimacy lacking in almost all of Picasso's work. So naturally all of us photographers will find concordance in emotion and spirit with the former.

I prefer the former ... interesting that A. Alfred Taubman collected both.

One better than the other ... problematic as there exists today no standard to judge other than one's own perception and worldview. Which was exactly what the Surrealists sought ...

I for one am not convinced that Post Modernism is the answer to the ultimate questions of existence and value ... but that is a topic for another discussion.



I'm so confused ! My wife, educated in art has often tried to gently steer me away from my "emperor's new clothes" mentality .... with not much success. Then, just this morning ..... I got it. I finally got it.

I was watching TV with my very young granddaughters, and felt the influence of Picasso today ...... a long running British cartoon series called Peppa Pig. Google some images - a revelation, non mes amies?

Not a regular reader, and my husband the regular reader forwarded this post to me. Probably because he knows that I completely reject the premise of this article.

Do you think we can decide on Ulysses being a better book than Godot simply because of the amount of money it (first edition, say) sold for?

Some people like looking at artwork A, and others like looking at artwork B. The A people say A was painted by a better artist. They sympathize with A artist more, they feel he wasn't really recognized except posthumously. They feel B artist stole all the glory. They judge artwork B by the character of its artist. And the B people have a number of things to say. That B was among the most unique to walk the earth. That you need to experience it almost as a meditative experience. That people who don't like B don't really "get it". Etc.

My point is this. People like John Berger have perhaps spent a lifetime circling the notion that there is no objective measure by which certain artworks are "better". Sure, they tend to be correlated with aesthetics, like symmetry, proportions, colors, etc that are likely to be more pleasing to the eye. And then you will have something like Guernica or Beethoven's late string quartets that utterly defies all the rules and yet gets experienced more, is worth more, based on its value on an arbtitrary currency of choice.

All this attempt to characterize this in an objective fashion is a substitute for that mild discomfort that people experience when they look at some pieces of art. But we'd rather not say "it makes me a bit queasy to look at" or "this works for my mood right now", because the world expects the people who go to a museum to look at art to say intelligent things (a la, Simon Schama types). And so the dance goes on, trying to objectify our discomfort/dislike of some, admittedly well-known, pieces of art.

I'd like to see, next to coat checks in museums, "a conscious brain check" - whereby people leave all the concrete things like our little dictionary stored in the brain, and what we plan to say to our loved ones later, and what we plan to write about our experience etc out at the door and go experience the artwork in that dreamlike state. A little bit of alcohol (the good stuff) helps also!

I like the Picasso painting better, but I think I agree that the Modigliani is actually the better of the two paintings. Did that have anything to do with the prices they fetched? Who knows?

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