Value Mysteries: Picasso Ceramic Owls
In 1946 Picasso was staying near Antibes in the South of France and decorating the walls of what would become the Musée Picasso. A small owl with an injured claw that had been found in a corner ended up living with him and his lover, Francois Gilot. According to Gilot in her book “Life With Picasso” the owl was an ill-tempered creature who smelled awful and ate only mice. The owl would snort at Picasso and bite his fingers; Picasso would reply with a string of obscenities just to show the bird who was the most ill-tempered. Clearly bad manners were the way to Picasso’s heart for not only did he do a number of paintings, drawings and prints of owls, he created numerous ceramics.
While it is true that Picasso didn’t create most of the ceramic shapes that he decorated at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris (though he did manipulate many of the forms — bent them to his will, if you will), it was not until after the artist’s death did sketches come to light that proved Picasso had in fact executed designs for ceramics around the time the little owl was regurgitating hairballs around the house.
Take a look at five ceramics below that were created at Madoura in 1951. One of them was painted personally by Picasso. The others were painted by the artisans at the pottery after Picasso’s original, what are called “authentic replicas” in the Ramié catalogue raisonne and what are commonly known as Edition Picasso Ceramics. Can you tell which is the one painted by the artist?
This isn’t the value mystery by the way, although Picasso’s unique prototypes usually command prices at least ten times higher than the editions. We’ll get to the value mystery shortly. First, however, it will be useful to understand how relatively common this owl shape was in the entire set of 633 Picasso ceramics that were made into editions.
Of the edition owls above one was of 500 (Picasso ceramics were made in editions of between 25 and 500), so it is not particular rare. The other three were from editions of 300, so already in 1951 there were 1400 owls of this shape flying out of Madoura. You might think that there were really 1401 counting the one that is Picasso’s unique piece, but you would be wrong. In addition to the unique piece (the fourth in the lineup above) which was not made into an edition, there were prototypes for the four other owls that were replicated plus, undoubtedly, other paintings by the artist of this shape. The essence of Picasso’s genius was his being able to tap into a virtually inexhaustible creativity. Once the artisans at the Madoura pottery had created Picasso’s owl shape in ceramic they would have given him some fired pieces which he would have begun decorating. It was not unusual for Picasso to paint a dozen ceramics in a day or more. Altogether he painted over 4000 pieces at Madoura, only 633 of which were made into editions.
There were other owl shapes decorated by Picasso but this, his own, clearly remained one of Picasso’s favorites. A new edition of 300 differently painted owls of this same shape were produced in 1952. In 1958 another edition was created, this one of 200 pieces (the smallest edition of this particular form), not with a white glaze but just the terracotta clay as the mat finish. Ten years later, in 1968, Picasso decorated two more owls in his most complex and colorful design, each editions of 500. A year later, in 1969 just a few years before his death Picasso returned to the shape again with six new pieces — some of his last ceramics, also in large editions. If you add up all the edition owls of this particular shape the total comes to 5,250. Since some shapes were painted just once by Picasso in editions as small as 25, it is safe to say that these owls not only are not rare, they are actually among the most common of the three-dimensional Edition Picasso ceramics.
Now consider these four different versions of the form — all from 1969 — and therein lies the mystery:
These owls are regularly estimated at about $6000 – 8000 at auction. However, one of them — or I should say a piece from one of these editions — sold at Sotheby’s London on March 19, 2013, for the equivalent of $75,590.
Was that particular version some kind of weird rarity? No, it was simply one of the 500 copies in the edition, which are all supposed to be virtually identical replicas of Picasso’s prototype. Is one of these versions somehow “better” than the others from 1969 (or all the other 5,249 Edition Picasso owls of this shape)? No. In fact these four ceramics are often miscatalogued because they resemble one another so closely and because of their muddy palette they have historically sold for less than some of the more colorful pieces of the same form.
So what gives?
I have spoken about the wild price fluxuations in Picasso Ceramics before, which started with the “Madoura” sale at Christie’s London in June 2012. A lot of it boils down to a thinly traded market, lack of information and clever people trying to exploit one another. The $75,590 owl was Ramié 605, the first owl in the second row, but the huge price wasn’t made at the 2012 Madoura sale. While a copy of Ramié 605 did soar in that sale above its 3000 – 5000 British Pound estimate to achieve 10,625 pounds ($16,554), which was in fact a record high for the ceramic, that price was bested at the Sotheby’s London 2013 sale by almost 400%.
At Sotheby’s 2013 sale several other Picasso ceramics achieved prices higher than pieces from the same editions had at Christie’s historic Madoura sale the previous year. Perhaps the reason was that Sotheby’s, taking a cue from its competitor, had started to specifically target Chinese and Russian buyers. These collectors were already spending big money at the evening sales of Picasso paintings and drawings, the estimates of most of which started at over a million bucks. It was — for them — a new notion that they could pick up Picassos for less than $100,000. So you paid two or three times the estimates – the auction houses often kept estimates low just to get the action going. What bargains!
Of course when you are dealing with a lot of clever people all of whom are trying to outsmart one another reversals aren’t uncommon. There’s probably even Chinese and Russian words equivalent to the one we use in English when there’s a second reversal after the first: the double cross. Lately it’s come to light that some Chinese buyers haven’t paid for items they’ve won at auction. So perhaps once the buyer had a chance to consider things, the record price was something that existed only on paper (and in auction records), not in fact. And maybe underbidders researched the market a bit more thoroughly after the $75,590 record. Six copies of Ramié 605 have traded at auction since 2013 at prices ranging from $15,000 – 20,000 (Ramié 604, 606 and 607 have performed similarly).
Every sale is different, and when you are dealing with thinly traded items anything is possible. You only need two bidders to make an auction. If they both have a lot of money and perhaps not enough information then the sky’s the limit. The owl below, one from an edition of 300, just sold (18 March 2015) at Sotheby’s in London for 37,500 pounds ($55,343) against an estimate of about $4,400 – 7,300. At the same sale four other versions of owls of this shape sold for between $13,000 and $24,000.
There’s one more wrinkle to this story. After the $75,590 record, knowledgeable collectors who had copies of Ramié 605 (or Ramié 604, 606 and 607) decided that their ceramics, too, were suddenly worth $75,000. Not surprisingly they haven’t been overanxious to consign the pieces to auction where they are still estimated $6,000 – $8,000, and it’s hard to find a dealer with one of these pieces whose asking price starts at lower than $75,000. Thus while demand remains strong the supply actually available for sale is far less than the real supply. Just a few birds fly out periodically, which may be why they still bring Madoura Sale prices.
But if everyone gets nervous that the market won’t sustain these prices and a few dozen or hundred (or thousand) owls were to fly out at the same time, look out below.