Sotheby’s set the year’s first benchmark price for trophy artworks at auction when Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Femme au Béret et à la Robe Quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter)” sold in London for 49.8 million pounds with fees, or about R817,37 million. The prize piece in a 47-lot evening sale of Impressionist, modern and Surrealist art, it was bought by a telephone bidder, and had been estimated to reach at least £35 million.
“It was a fantastic painting,” said Gérard Faggionato, a partner at the David Zwirner Gallery in London. “I haven’t seen such a vibrant Picasso for a long time. Look at the wall power.”
The brightly coloured, 22-inch-high canvas, painted on Dec. 4 in the same year as masterpieces such as “Guernica” and “The Weeping Woman,” was a head and shoulders study of Picasso’s mistress and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had met in Paris 10 years earlier. By 1937, Ms. Walter had given birth to Picasso’s daughter Maya, and was competing for the artist’s attention with Dora Maar, the model for “Weeping Woman.”
Unusually, “Femme au Béret” had never appeared on the market before, having been acquired by the owner directly from the artist’s estate, according to the Sotheby’s catalog. It was guaranteed to sell, courtesy of a third-party “irrevocable bid.” It attracted at least three telephone bidders and one in the room.
Picasso is currently living up to his reputation as the most bankable of modern artists. At this same Sotheby’s sale, Harry Smith, executive chairman and managing director of the London-based art advisers Gurr Johns, bought the evening’s three other Picassos on behalf of a client.
The large 1970 painting, “Le Matador,” was the most expensive of these, at £16.5 million, just above the low estimate.
Mr. Smith was bulk-buying Picasso for his client the night before at Christie’s. The adviser bought eight of the sale’s nine Picassos, spending more than £37 million.
Sellers have been keen to capitalize on the excitement generated by the Tate Modern exhibition “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy,” which opens on March 8, having transferred from the Musée National Picasso-Paris. Tate Modern’s first solo show devoted to Picasso, it chronicles, month by month, the intensely creative year in which the artist made his most sensuous paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter.
These works are much coveted by wealthy collectors. “Le Rêve,” painted in January of that year, was bought in 2013 by the billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen for $155 million from the casino magnate Steve Wynn in a private transaction. That painting is in the Tate Modern exhibition and is being used to advertise it.
“Picasso is a very powerful brand,” said Christian Ogier, a Paris dealer who specializes in 20th-century art, going on to sum up the work’s appeal to collectors and investors: “When you have a Picasso, you recognize it’s a Picasso with the first look. He’s consistently good, and he has a future. A new generation will have taste for Picasso.”