Buy, Sell, Hold: Picasso Ceramics
When works from the Estate of Edgar M. Bronfman come on the block in early May at Christie's New York, one aspect of the collection will likely be more widely sought after than any other, and it won't be Picasso's pricey oil paintings like his Portrait of Dora Maar (est. $25–35 million). The Bronfman collection will offer (in a special online-only sale) 35 lots of Picasso's ceramics–plates, vases, and servers painted with fish, faces, nude women, and bullfighting scenes, among others (ranging in price from $4,000–70,000)—that were made at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, France, between 1947 and 1971. Sotheby's London is offering “Important Ceramics by Pablo Picasso" on May 7, featuring 170 lots of Picasso ceramics ranging in estimates from under $1,000 to just over $100,000.
Time to Buy: Once the bounty of tourists in the South of France looking to take home haute tchotchkes with local color for a reasonable price, these ceramic pieces can now fetch upwards of a million dollars—and yet collectors both novice and experienced can still get them for relative peanuts.
While the market for Picasso ceramics has had its high points in the past, such as in the mid-1980s, and again in the mid-2000s, more recently it has experienced yet another more significant resurgence, with the ceramics' inclusion in notable sales of private collections in the past few years.
In May 2010, at the sale of the collection of Los Angeles philanthropist Frances Lasker Brody at Christie's New York, Picasso's 1932 painting Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur, a portrait of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter, broke the world record for a work of art ever sold at auction when it brought in $106.5 million. Meanwhile, making quieter headway at the day sale of that same auction was a selection of the artist's ceramics. Grand vase aux femmes nues (a 25-inch ceramic vase painted with female nudes) was pocketed for $230,500, nearly quadrupling the lot's low estimate of $60,000.
In 2011, the early interest seen at the Brody sale escalated into overt angling when Christie's London offered the collection of Art Basel co-founder Ernst Beyeler, which included, along with Picasso's 1946 colorist portrait Buste de Françoise, a group of 30 ceramics by the artist, among them Visage brun/bleu. The work, a unique plate created in 1947 and painted with a brown and blue face, sold for $331,155, over 13 times its low estimate of $25,000. Other eye-catching sales included a unique round 10-inch vase from 1950, Quatre poissons (Four fish), which sold for $263,391, over five times its low estimate of $48,402. In June 2012, the Madoura Collection sale at Christie's South Kensington, which offered collectors the last chance to pick up works from the source, garnered international attention when all 543 lots sold, bringing in $12,584,141 and with record prices for nearly every piece. The highest selling item at that sale was Grand vase aux femmes voilées, which sold for $1.2 million, more than 16 times its low estimate of $70,000. Sotheby's in 2013 staged "Important Ceramics by Pablo Picasso from a Private Collection," which offered 100 jugs, bowls, and vases, and sold out, with 94 percent of the lots selling above their high estimate. The sale rang up $2.2 million. The leading lot was Vase gros oiseau vert (Big Green Bird Vase) (1960), which sold for $157,732.
“It is the most important masterpiece collectors in modern and contemporary art who are driving the higher prices you see," Michelle McMullan, head of sales for Impressionist and modern art at Christie's, told artnet News over email. “So many of the important collections we see now have ceramics. Someone who is into 1960s Picasso paintings will pair it with a few ceramics [the artist] made on the same day, even."
The collection of Edgar M. Bronfman is a case in point. It includes both important paintings by the artist as well as a wide range of ceramics.
While it seems that prices may have peaked, interest doesn't seem to be ebbing. “These high-profile and headline-worthy sales have brought more important ceramics on the market," said Lucy Rosenburgh, a specialist in prints and multiples at Sotheby's London, over email. “The strength of Picasso's market, generally, is certainly a factor as well."
That opinion is supported by artnet Analytics, which shows that the market for ceramics has moved steadily ahead over the past five years. The total sales volume in 2009 was $4.3 million and around $6 million in 2010. In 2011, it jumped to nearly $17 million. In 2012 and 2013, it was $21.8 million and $23.5 million, respectively. Likewise, the sell-through rate has increased from 72 percent in 2009 (when roughly 550 objects were on offer) to 87 percent in 2011 (with about 1,000 objects on offer) to 90 percent in 2012 (with more than 1,300 objects for sale). In 2013, the sell-through rate dipped a bit to a still-healthy 80 percent, with approximately 1,200 objects on offer.
Curatorial and academic interest in this period of the artist's practice have also aided the ascension of ceramics from mere "craft" to art objects. The first significant exhibition of Picasso's ceramics was held in 1998 at the Royal Academy London. Currently Paris's Musée de Sevres has an exhibition with hundreds of examples of Picasso's unique and editioned works—Picasso produced more than 600. It doesn't hurt that the ceramics have a dedicated catalogue raisonné published in 1974 by Georges Ramié, the owner of the Madoura workshop, and updated in 1988 by Alain Ramié.
The buoyancy of Picasso's ceramics market is partly attributable to the broad global profile of interested buyers, though they tend to be concentrated in the US and Western Europe. The versatility of the objects accentuates their broad appeal. “Collectors of Picasso ceramics are not necessarily collectors of Picasso prints or paintings, but they do tend to be aesthetically oriented and collectors of some sort," said Rosenburgh, who says she's seen beautiful collections of ceramics coexisting harmoniously with extensive art collections in varied media and periods, as well as displayed among trophies, photographs, and other more personal mementos.
As a testament to such eclectic connoisseurship, on a recent episode of Antiques Roadshow, a woman had who kept a grease-covered Picasso plate hanging over her stove since roughly 1970 (when the piece had been purchased in Rhode Island for, most likely, under $100 and not knowing it was by Picasso), was told to her great amusement that it's probably worth $10,000–15,000.
Because many Picasso collectors are being priced out of the market for his paintings and works on paper, the ceramics, in particular the unique pieces, have become more attractive to collectors who desire an object by Picasso.
“Collectors range from first-time buyers," said McMullan, “to the serious Picasso ceramic collectors who are going after them all."