Value Mysteries: Picasso’s Runaway Bull Returns
In my previous post I discussed the Case of the Picasso Ceramic Bull, “Taureau” as he is called in Alain Ramié’s definitive ““Picasso – Catalogue of the Edited Ceramic Works, 1947 – 1971.” Alain Ramié is the son of the Georges and Suzanne Ramié who created Picasso’s edition ceramics at the Madoura pottery.
The first of these Taureaus (AR 255 as it is identified in the catalogue raisonne) to sell at auction brought $87,000 in 1990. For the next two decades, however, at least eighteen other bulls from the edition of 100 sold (or were passed) at auction for prices averaging in the $20,000s. As late as April 2010 one sold at Christie’s in New York for $27,500. In October that same year another brought $25,000 at Sotheby’s New York. But something very strange happened at the next sale of AR 255, which took place at Christie’s South Kensington on June 25, 2012. The price was 97,250 British pounds — $151,263!
What the hell happened in the intervening year and half that drove the price of Picasso’s ceramic Taureau up 500%?
To answer that question it is helpful to go back to last post where I discussed the factors that drove the price of the first Bull into record territory:
“Market inefficiency drives price volatility and, as with many markets, there are three factors that create inefficiency for Picasso ceramics: lack of knowledge, thin trading and what some people might call manipulation but which in reality is simply the interaction of small groups of people who think they are smarter than everyone else seeking to make money by exploiting the first two factors.”
Did any of these three factors exist after twenty years of stable prices for this ceramic? You’d think all the angles had been covered by now, and everybody knew all there was to be known, wouldn’t you?
But in fact all of these conditions still existed on June 25, 2012 when “The Madoura Collection” went up for sale in South Kensington. Parsing the facts, however, is difficult because in the art market — as in quantum physics — the facts change depending on how they are observed and by whom.
Let’s not call it manipulation because Christie’s in fact was smarter than everyone else when they packaged hundreds of ceramics that had been consigned by Alain Ramié into a hugely publicized, once-in-a-lifetime, sale-of-the-century type affair on June 25, 2012.
Christie’s sale rooms in South Kensington were a perfect venue — one of the priciest neighborhoods in the world and the kind of place where the street traffic is comprised of billionaires. Right there in the window were scads of these charming, wacky Picasso pots and plates, which probably a lot of billionaires and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts had never seen before. These are the sort of folks who usually only bother with the big evening sales where even “restaurant Picassos” start at a couple million bucks. (“You know, Restaurant Picassos,” as Steve Wynn once educated me. “They’re not good enough for my museum so I put them in the restaurant.”) Here was an opportunity to pick up a genuine Picasso with the best provenance imaginable in such pristine condition that it looked like it had been made yesterday for estimates that began at a mere 1,000 pounds or even less. Stocking stuffers!
People who attended the previews reported that these were the archive copies of the Madoura pottery, the “bon à tirer” pieces, the very prototypes approved by Picasso so that editions could be recreated and sold inexpensively (originally) to the tourists. Strangely the Christie’s catalogue itself did not mention any of this, other than to identify the sale as “the Madoura Collection” and specify the edition size. In other words you might have bought the story but as in any auction you weren’t buying actual documentation beyond what was printed in the lot description. Many of the ceramics were marked “Exemplaire Editeur,” which led to a lot of grumbling among cynics and old-time dealers who had been buying ceramics directly from Madoura — in some cases since the 1960s — and had never heard of anything marked “Exemplaire Editeur.” Nothing about Exemplaire Editeurs had been mentioned in the catalogue raisonne. How many of these things were there and when were they really made?
The same people also complained that the person who Christie’s (and Sotheby’s) trusted to judge the authenticity of Picasso ceramics was the same person who consigned the pieces, a rather serious conflict of interest! No matter. It wasn’t the cynics who were going to buy at the Madoura sale, any more than they would have shelled out a thousand dollars for a $50 cookie jar at the Andy Warhol Estate sale or God only knows how much for Jackie Kennedy’s dental floss. The once-in-a-lifetime Madoura sale was geared toward once-in-a-lifetime buyers — this was their last chance to buy directly from the source. And buy they did. The two-day Madoura Collection sale was a huge success, taking in over £8,000,000 ($12,500,000), four times its total presale estimate, and was 100 percent sold by lot and by value.
It is interesting to note that not all of the ceramics in the Madoura sale were Exemplaires Editeur. Some were ordinary numbered and unnumbered production pieces. Others bore strange numbering like 113/157/200. A “Grand Vase” that sold for £265,250 was marked H.C 1/3. H.C. is an abbreviation for Hors Commerce, which basically meant not for sale. There is no mention of H.C. Picasso ceramics in the catalogue raisonne. These ceramics skyrocketed past their estimates like everything else.
When the purchasers go to sell their copies, will the market reward them for coming from the historic Madoura Sale (presuming the buyers have kept their receipts)? Or will they find their ceramics valued just like all the hundreds of identical others in the editions?
And what about Taureau, AR 255, Picasso’s Bull that ran away in value? Will it continue to bring a huge premium over its bovine brethren?
In fact a year later the price of Taureau was down by more than half, an example from the edition selling at Christie’s New York for $68,750. A few months later Christie’s South Kensington did better, getting the equivalent of over $91,000 for one (rumor has it that they specifically targeted Chinese internet buyers who had no idea that genuine Picassos could be had so cheap). Not bad, but of course not in the same league as that Exemplaire Editeur Taureau that garnered $151,263 at the Madoura sale. How much, I wonder, is that once-in-a-lifetime ceramic worth today?
In fact, buried at the bottom of the definitions and abbreviations page of Alain Ramié’s catalogue raisonne is the note that there are three “publisher’s copies” for each piece. So perhaps there will be two more “once-in-a-lifetime” Madoura sales in the future. But an Exemplaire Editeur Taureau may not be in both: I appraised one purchased directly from Madoura in 2005.