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Despite Pablo Picasso's reputation as an undisputed genius of modern European art, his brash later works have traditionally received little love from collectors. This may be because the pieces—composed from 1960 until his death in 1973—were long considered, as critic Douglas Cooper once noted, "incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the anteroom of death." Their unsubtle portrayal of sex suggested to others that they were the aging artist's way of coping in the days before Viagra. For decades, many sold in the low six figures.
In the past two years, though, these large, bright, and loud works have become sensations. In a perfect marriage of questionable taste and label snobbery, newly wealthy Chinese collectors are flocking to late Picassos and helping drive prices to unprecedented levels. What's the allure? Well, they're large, bright, and loud—and, of course, they were painted by Picasso. "There is something about these works that definitely appeals to the Chinese," says Ken Yeh, Christie's Asia chairman. "Many of the late Picassos are very colorful and big in scale. In Asia, they generally prefer larger paintings. Size does matter."
Eager to capitalize on the desires of Chinese collectors who are moving into just about every category of the art market these days, major dealers and galleries are papering their walls with late Picassos. Many of the works are coming from American and European collectors who acquired them in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, and appear eager to cash in on the boom. Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, for example, unloaded a massive 1971 work for $7.7 million at Christie's New York last year. In March 2009, megadealer Larry Gagosian mounted a museum-caliber exhibition of late Picassos in one of his New York galleries. Two months later, Christie's New York sold Picasso's bright, misshapen Mousquetaire à la Pipe (1968) for $14,642,500—more than twice what it sold for in 2004. In June, Sotheby's (BID) London sold Picasso's Homme à l'Epée (1969) for $7 million; that same month, Christie's London sold his Le Baiser (1969) for a little over $18 million—$13 million more than paper mogul Peter Brant paid for it in 2003.
Last week, Christie's and Sotheby's achieved similar results at their New York auction houses with Chinese collectors bidding aggressively on most lots. Christie's sold Picasso's Faune, Femme Nu et Mousquetaire, a raunchy drawing made in 1967, for $1.3 million—$500,000 more than its presale estimate—as well as the 1964 painting Le Peintre et Son Modèle, which met heightened expectations by fetching nearly $3 million. At Sotheby's, Picasso's Homme au Fanion (1969) brought in $5.4 million. "It's a very sound market and a very real market," says Giovanna Bertazzoni, the head of Modern and Impressionist art at Christie's London. "It's not a bubble."
The works do offer distinct charms for newly ascendant collectors. They're less expensive than trophy pieces from the artist's Blue Period, which typically sell for upwards of $20 million. Melissa Chiu, director of the New York-based Asia Society Museum, also believes they befit certain lifestyle preferences. "It's a broader socioeconomic trend," Chiu says. "The Chinese collectors at this level have a great interest in European culture. They want to acquire those kinds of cultural values. You need only look at the high-end housing complexes in China—they're in a European style. They even have European names." Chiu notes that these collectors are moving into other European-dominated areas of connoisseurship as well, fine wines among them.
There's also a larger aesthetic reappraisal playing out in the background. In the past few years, some scholars have begun viewing the violent brushstrokes and disorderly compositions that characterize Picasso's later works as akin to popular midcentury trends such as abstract expressionism, Pop art, and even graffiti. Christie's Bertazzoni notes the similarities between late Picassos and increasingly popular contemporary Chinese paintings, particularly in the use of caricature and a subliminally disenchanted political tone.
Although it's too soon to tell whether these aesthetic connections will remain valid, experts note that it hardly matters when pieces are selling for 500 percent more than what they fetched a decade ago. "I was in Hong Kong and Beijing in the weeks leading up to last week's sales," says David Norman, the executive vice-president of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's. "All I heard was, 'What Picassos are being sold?' "
With this season's crop of Modern and Impressionist sales behind them, Christie's and Sotheby's are both in consignment mode, securing work for their major February sales in London. And given the proclivities of their new collectors, they'll keep at least three important attributes in mind: The Picassos will be large, colorful, and expensive.