Why Add a Picasso to Your Collection?

 With an infinite number of choices available in the art world, why would anyone choose to add a Picasso to their collection? Or begin their collection with a Picasso? After all, Picasso paintings sell for untold millions of dollars, andthe very thought of owning a Picasso is surely just a pipedream. The very name “Picasso” instantly conjures images of his Blue Period. Or perhaps his Rose Period. Or Cubism, Neo-classicism, Surrealism or even Still Life. Titles often spring immediately to mind—Desmoiselles D’Avignon, Les Femmes d’Alger, La Rêve, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Buste de femme. All of these have been in the news because they sold for eye-popping values. It certainly is true that the thought of acquiring one of those works is a pipedream because even the richest person in the world, who clearly has the means to buy one, would have to struggle to actually get the current owners to part with their treasure. After all, people who wish to see a Picasso go to one of the hundreds of museums around the world to do so.

Left:Desmoisellesd'Avignon(1907) Right:Les femmes d’Alger(Version ‘O’) (1955)
Left:La Rêve(1932) Middle:Nude, Green Leaves and Bust(1932) Right:Bustede femme(1938)

Pablo Picasso, was actually born “Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Apparently that was too unwieldy and he was just called “Pablo Ruiz Picasso” after his parents—JoséRuiz and Maria Picasso, though apparently that too was unwieldy and he simply dropped his father’s name to become “Pablo Picasso.”

His vast artistic output began at age nine after a visit to the local bullfighting ring and did not stop until he died. In the intervening years, he created a vast repository of masterpieces that not only spanned his multitude of phases, but also his many mediums. Everyone knows of his oil paintings, but fewer are aware of his domination in sculpture, ceramics, collage, drawings and printmaking. He mastered everything he touched, though everything he touched was not a masterpiece. There are gradations in each one of his mediums—from pure genius down to ordinary. Just as diamonds come in an entire range of greatness, depending on color, clarity, size, shape and cut, so it is with Picasso’s art. A question in acquiring diamonds is how to balance size with the other factors. Is it better to obtain a larger diamond at the expense of clarity, or is it better to get a smaller, higher-quality stone? The same thing happens with Picasso. While one still may be able to afford a Picasso oil, it is not possible for any but the über-wealthy to buy a gem. In order to then successfully procure a Picasso oil, most people would have to settle for a work of significantly lower desirability.

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Picasso’s Original Prints

 What one can acquire though is a true masterpiece in one of his other mediums—like his original prints. The reason for that is not a mystery. Because he made multiple originals of his prints, there are more of them. Certainly even within his print oeuvre, there are gradations—like diamonds, based on rarity and quality.

In the case of his most famous masterpiece in print, La Femme qui PleureI, there were fifteen originals and they consistently sell between $4,000,000 and $5,250,000. His 1904 print, The Frugal Repast (Le Repas frugal) had an original tirage of 250, and they have sold for up to $3,000,000. Even Picasso’s black and white prints have become somewhat more difficult to acquire as their desirability has increased.

La Femme qui PleureI (1937)

La Femme qui PleureI (1937)

The Frugal Repast (1904)

The Frugal Repast (1904)

Picasso Original Color Prints

This has led many collectors to his works in color. His most famous color print, Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger, IIhad a tirageof 50, and can sell for up to $1,000,000. This is still a huge price tag that renders it out of the reach of most people, but what is critical is to recognize the forces driving the prices. Simple supply and demand. 

PICASSO, Pablo, 1881-1973 Portrait de jeune fille, d'après Cranach le Jeune. II, 1958 Linoleum cut printed in colors on thin poster paper, for sale at Galerie MichaelPortrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger II (1958)

The laws of supply and demand state that as supply stays constant, but demand increase, prices increase. On the supply side, there can never be more Picassos produced. The moment he died in 1973, the supply number was permanently set, never to be increased. On the demand side, Picasso has never been more popular, so demand is increasing. That in turn is forcing prices higher. There are entire nations who are awakening to Picasso—ancient nations with ancient cultures like China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Why those countries, and why now? 

Begin with the availability of money. China’s economic expansion quickly brought it from a position of insignificance to the second-largest economy in the world. As a part of that growth, the Chinese leadership felt the need to showcase their achievements in non-economic ways in an attempt to bring them into leadership roles that were previously not desired or were unattainable. The hosting of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games, and the imminent 2022 Olympic Winter Games, are examples. Yet it wasn’t enough to simply host the games, they had to be the most memorable, ostentatious ceremonies ever held. China’s economic growth and strength were the foundation of its loud declaration that it is a force to be reckoned with, and it has the wherewithal to do as it pleases. China announced that its thousands-year-old culture was strong and now is simultaneously changing.

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Western Art in the Arab World

Similarly, the Arab nations in the Middle East grew at a prodigious rate as the price of, and demand for, oil grew. With the 2022 World Cup being held in Qatar, a tiny nation with immeasurable monetary resources, the world was again put on notice that the thousands-year-old Arabian culture was strong, and also exploding with change. 

It may be cliché that art unifies seemingly unrelated people and cultures, yet it is true. It is also true that as nations grow into powerhouses, they seek to expand their cultural development and reach. The differences between the strict underpinnings of China and those of the Arab world are profound, yet there is a great deal they have in common. One major shared component is the establishment of monumental art galleries and museums—China’s in terms of numbers of galleries across their vast nation, and the Arabian Peninsula’s in terms of the sheer size of their new galleries. China tends to embrace certain artists and subjects very differently from the Arabian nations. Both eschew Christian themes while those nations with an Islamic base typically reject nudity and other themes deemed to be inconsistent with Islamic values.

Yet both areas have one fundamental commonality—they both need vast quantities of art to fill the walls of their museums. China has opened more than 4,000 museums in recent years largely due to the desire of those with the means and influence to leave behind a cultural legacy. The story is only slightly different in the Middle East, particularlyin the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both nations are experiencing rapid change of some very long-held religiously-based cultural tenets. It was the Qataris who purchased Gaugin’s When Will You Marry? for $210,000,000 and Cézanne’s The Card Players for $250,000,000. And not to be outdone, it was a very prominent Saudi who set a new world-record for an art purchase when he bought Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for a staggering $450,000,000, despite the very obvious fact that the work depicts Jesus Christ, and nothing else.

Gaugin, When Will You Marry? (1892)

Gaugin, When Will You Marry? (1892)

Cézanne, The Card Players (1890)

Cézanne, The Card Players (1890)

Leonardo da Vinci, SalvatorMundi (c. 1500)Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (c. 1500)

While those acquisition costs are difficult to comprehend, they are perfectly reasonable when one views the investment the Arab nations are making in building galleries and museums. It is estimated that the newly-opened, 430,000-square-foot (ten acres of floor space) Qatar Museum cost $1,000,000,000 to construct. Then there is the 59,000-square-foot Arab Museum of Modern Art and the I.M. Pei-designed, 480,000-square-foot (eleven acres of floor space) Museum of Islamic Art, both also in Qatar. The next one to open will be the astonishing National Museum, with its breathtaking architecture. 

Qatar MuseumQatar Museum

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Saudi Arabia is on the same path, though slightly behind their neighbor, Qatar. The Saudi Museum of Modern Art is now being planned in Riyadh. The United Arab Emirates opened the
Louvre Abu Dhabi two years ago, and the Guggenheim is set to open its $680,000,000 museum in the UAE in 2023. Planning is underway for the $270,000,000 Zayed National Museum. Then there is the Museum of the Future, in Dubai, with its $300,000,000 budget.

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Western Art in China

China is a different story in some respects, but identical in others. They too have demonstrated a profound interest in the Modern Masters, particularly Picasso. A new museum dedicated to Picasso and Giacometti will be opening in Beijing next year. This is no small undertaking and boasts the support of both Paris’s National Picasso Museum and the Giacometti Foundation, who are under contract to manage the new endeavor for at least five years. 

France is also involved in another major undertaking, this time in Shanghai. The Centre Pompidou is collaborating with the Chinese, having just opened a museum in the West Bund, a Shanghai district now known for its up-and-coming arts scene. French President Emmanuel Macron was on hand at the end of 2019 to inaugurate this 27,000 square-foot museum. More than $3,000,000,000 has been spent to date to develop a cultural hub on the waterfront. 

What these museums bring is interest, then appreciation, then demand for new collectors and collections. Next to the United States and the United Kingdom, China is the largest art market. As the number of collectors grows, they will certainly move up into either of the two number top spots. Their goal is to cast off any notion of provinciality in favor ofuniversality—and universal approval and respect.

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Picasso—Foundation of Modernity

The reasons for his popularity are as clear as the forces driving the price curve. Picasso represents the jumping off point for modernity—he changed art forever. He, like Rembrandt, was a virtuoso—the two of whom were just separated by four centuries. Rembrandt was the most innovative painter and printmaker of the 17thcentury. Picasso held that title for the 20thcentury. He is universally considered to be the single-most-important artist of influence over the entire century. He was the greatest creator and destroyer of form in the entire history of Western Art. He not only took up a medium, but he mastered it. He perfected it. He then transformed it by taking it to technical and creative potential until then unrealized.

He had self-imposed standards fueled by an internal demand for perfection. He experimented ceaselessly—always looking for new greatness. His art will be considered great forever because it embodies the three pillars of greatness in art: mystery, ambiguity and contradiction.

What happens when supply remains static (or decreases due to works being permanently removed from the marketplace) and demand increases? The trends can be summarized simply: with future burgeoning demand and a fixed supply, there will be significant upward acquisition-cost pressure on the buying of art. 

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  February 18, 2020