Last week Christie’s made all the headlines after Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers (Version ‘O’) was auctioned for a staggering $179 million. The sale simply confirms the return to top form of the art market, which over the last decade has been experiencing its very own Golden Age—bar a brief hiccup in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. But this is neither the most expensive nor the most emblematic painting ever sold, so why the fuss (and is it worth it)?
Precisely the fact that it isn’t one of Picasso’s signature works is already enough to make this sale remarkable. Not that there is anything wrong with the painting—few could argue that it isn’t eye-catching, decorative, even pretty, in the plainest sense of the word. But so is most of the stuff in display at Pottery Barn. Which brings us to heart of the matter, surely: if this very same piece had been signed by John Doe, it would probably not even be worth $179,000—but the word Picasso at the bottom of the canvas rockets its market value exponentially.
Another determining factor in the hype created by this sale is the identity of the buyer—this was not the State of Qatar, or any other Middle Eastern country, splashing petrodollars and making a big statement on their way to creating the ultimate museum. Instead, it was a private collector who chose to remain anonymous. Private collectors—and not only those focusing on art—can be strange, obsessive, stubborn creatures. There is a chance that this person just wanted this and only this painting at all costs to enhance his living room—however slim, there is a chance. But in all likelihood this purchase was an investment, not so much a whim. And then the question arises: what else could you do with $180 million, other than buying a middle-of-the-road Picasso?
One option, following the lead of investors from the Middle East, would be to get into football. The prestigious Parma FC, winner of multiple titles in Italy and Europe in the 1990s, is currently for sale for just €20 million ($22.5 million). Looking at the exceptional success Bayern Munich has managed to cultivate since the 1970s, or the money-making machine into which Sir Alex Ferguson turned Manchester United, it sounds like a good prospect.
But the world of football can be fickle, unforgiving and above all tremendously expensive, as Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour has found out, and the choice between a mediocre Picasso and a mediocre football club might be more clean cut than it originally seemed. Not least because once you own a sports franchise, $180 million will only take you so far—indeed, in the wild universe of American sports it will only secure you one super star for a few years, and even that wouldn’t make it into the top ten contracts in history!
Tacking in a completely different direction, another option would be to do an Errol Flynn, buy a private island in the Caribbean, develop the area and live like a noble pirate. There’s much to say in favour of the social impact such move would entail, and $180 million in this part of the world would take you rather far: these days $30 million will buy you the most spectacular plot of land in Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla, and you could almost certainly count on the island’s new government signing off just about any project involving a major investment of this sort. For the price of a (previously) unremarkable Picasso you could build a resort, spa and marina that would become the trademark property in the whole region, and you would still have enough to buy yourself a Gulfstream G-650 ($65 million) to get to the island in style, and a pretty little Ferrari California Spider from 1962 ($10-15 million) to cruise to and from the airport.
But, of course, the risk involved in dealing with a government in the Caribbean, the operational and infrastructural costs entailed by owning and running a football club, the obligations connected to the establishment of a commercial enterprise of this magnitude anywhere in the world, far exceed the costs that come attached to preserving a work of art—no matter how much you lay aside for insurance, surveillance, security and room conditioning. Thus, assuming the art market does not experience a cataclysmic meltdown in the near future—and there is little to suggest it will—tying a huge lump of money to a commodity that seems destined to keep (if not dramatically increase) its value should perhaps be seen as a conservative low-risk low-yield strategy after all, rather than as a wild extravaganza.
Just in the odd case the private collector who bought Les Femmes d’Algers really was looking for a piece to enhance his living room, though, here is a recommendation: Nicolas de Stael’s Nu Couché, sold by Artcurial for $9.5 million less than five years ago, is comparable in size, more aesthetically pleasing and will almost certainly prove to be better value for money. Just saying.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday May 26 2015.