Published: May 11, 2004
Picasso Brings $104,168,000 at Sotheby’s
NEW YORK CITY – Sotheby’s made history this past week as it became the first auction house to sell a work of art for a price in excess of $100 million. The painting by Pablo Picasso was offered during Sotheby’s May 5 sale featuring the collection of the late Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, that was sold to benefit the Greentree Foundation. The auction offered 34 paintings, 32 of which sold, with a gross of $189,894,400 realized.
Leading the way was Pablo Picasso’s “Garcon a la Pipe,” a monumental work from his Rose period that sold for not only a world record price paid at auction for the artist, but also for any work of art ever sold at auction as it realized $104,168,000, including premium.
“It is the greatest possible privilege for Sotheby’s to have been the auction house to break the $100 million threshold,” said Bill Ruprecht, president and chief executive officer of Sotheby’s. The painting exceeded the previous record of $82.5 million set by Christie’s in May 1990 for Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr Gachet.” The previous record for a Picasso was established in 2000 at Christie’s when “Femme aux bras croises” sold at $55,006,000.
The appeal of the Whitney Collection was truly international as it attracted bidders from all corners of globe, including Great Britain, Singapore, France, Switzerland, Canada and Taiwan, as well as a host of collectors from the United States. According to Sotheby’s, more than 10,000 people made their way through the preview for the sale, and the auction, a black-tie event, was attended by close to 1,000.
As many as seven bidders in the room and on the phone competed for Picasso’s Rose period masterpiece for more than seven minutes. As auctioneer Tobias Meyer took the final bid from a Sotheby’s representative standing in the room, acting on behalf of an anonymous client, the salesroom erupted into applause.
In an introduction into the catalog by John Russell, John Whitney was described as “one of the most conspicuous men in the country. Not only had he been born to money and power, but he put those advantages to work in a way that was outgoing, debonair, full-blooded and considerate. He was by nature a participant, rather than a spectator, and he made a mark for himself as an athlete, a horseman, a breeder of great horses, a gifted investor in both Hollywood and Broadway, a pioneer venture-capitalist, a pertinacious volunteer in World War II, innovative philanthropist, and the last publisher of the New York Herald Tribune.”
Whitney had been immersed in art his entire life, the son of Mrs Payne Whitney, who was described as a “poet as well as a collector. Like most Americans of her generation, she liked John Singer Sargent. But she did not only like him in his brisk, external, virtuosic vein. One of the key paintings at Winfield House was Sargent’s wonderfully offhand portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. This wayward off-center image looked right at the Whitneys. Anyone can buy a big formal Sargent, if they have the money,” states Russell, “but the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson set a note of privacy and informality. It told us at once that this was a collection of two people who did not collect to impress, or to fill gaps, or to hoard. They collected what touched them directly.”
John Whitney served as a trustee of The Museum of Modern Art from 1930 onward, as its president in 1941 and then as its chairman from 1946 to 1956. He also became a trustee at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in 1961.
From their art collection, the Whitneys had donated many cornerstones to the collections of major institutions, such as Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece “Autoportrait,” Henri Matisse’s “Fenetre ouverte” and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Marcelle Lender dansant le bolero Chilperic,” all now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. The Museum of Modern Art was the recipient of Paul Cézanne’s “Route tourante a Montgeroult” and van Gogh’s “Les Oliviers.” Yale University Art Gallery was also the recipient of art gifted by the Whitneys. Other masterworks donated to institutions included paintings by Gauguin, Seurat, Eakins and Whistler.
Picasso’s “Garcon a la Pipe”
Picasso’s “Garcon a la Pipe,” painted in 1905, was termed “One of the most poetic Rose period images” by the artist and is undoubtedly one of Picasso’s iconic masterpieces from his early years. According to John Richardson, author of A Life of Picasso, the painting “conjures up Verlaine’s poem ‘Crimen Amoris,’ about a palace in Ecbatana where ‘adolescent satans’ neglect the five senses for the seven deadly sins, except ‘the most handsome of all these evil angels, who is 16 years old under his wreath of flowers… and who dreams away, his eyes full of fire and tears.'”
The painting is believed to have begun as a study from life in the artist’s immediate surroundings, but, according to the catalog, “was dramatically transformed in a moment of sudden inspiration.” It is said that Picasso befriended street entertainers and they unwittingly became his models, as is thought to have been the case of the study painting of the boy in the blue overalls. “One night,” according to Andre Salmon, author of La jeune peinture francaise, “Picasso abandoned the company of his friends and their intellectual chit-chat. He returned to his studio, took the canvas he had abandoned a month before and crowned the figure of the little apprentice lad with roses. He had made this work [“Garcon a la Pipe”] a masterpiece thanks to a sublime whim.”
Of the $100-plus million price tag received for the painting, Richard Schaffer, president of the Greentree Foundation, commented, “These results are a great tribute to Mr and Mrs Whitney, who represented collecting at its very best. Art was an essential aspect of their lives… Their extraordinary philanthropy now continues as the proceeds of the art they collected and, most importantly, lived with and loved, will be used to support the efforts of the Greentree Foundation in the furtherance of peace, human rights and international cooperation, causes of deep and abiding concern to both Mr and Mrs Whitney and the foundation’s trustees.”
Other prices realized from the Whitney sale will appear in a separate article.
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