A Picasso painting of two circus performers, once declared "degenerate" and confiscated by the Nazis, sold for $38.5 million Monday night at Christie's auction house in London. The spectacular sale set a record for 20th-Century art and continued a trend of rapidly escalating art prices.
The sale of Pablo Picasso's "Acrobat and Young Harlequin" was the highlight of a $103-million auction of 67 Impressionist and modern paintings consigned by various owners.
An unidentified Japanese man made the winning bid on the painting, a rare work from Picasso's "rose period," but only after outbidding another anonymous Japanese who competed by telephone. In a little more than three minutes, bids soared past the painting's estimated price of $17 million, then surpassed the record $24.75 million paid only two weeks ago for Picasso's painting "Motherhood" at Christie's in New York.
Later, a Japanese department store announced that it had bought the painting, the Associated Press reported from Tokyo.
"We bought the painting expecting to sell it to a private buyer here in Tokyo," Yasuhiko Tanaka, a spokesman for Mitsukoshi Department Store, said.
Mitsukoshi, a major importer of art, has not yet decided on specific plans for the display or sale of the painting, Tanaka said.
The highest price ever paid for any painting was $53.9 million for Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises" in New York last year.
A weeklong marathon of art auctions earlier this month in New York toppled dozens of records and left art professionals wondering whether and when the bubble would burst.
"There's an inordinate amount of disposable income out there, and the market has reached stratospheric levels," said Earl A. Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which owns 26 Picassos.
"It's a wonderful painting, but we're looking at a market that is more about money than art," he added. "All things considered, I guess the price is not surprising. But it is saddening because it keeps museums out of the picture. These (record-setting sales) are not institutional purchases."
Such auctions eliminate participation by all but the wealthiest collectors and appear to encourage speculation. But Powell said the Picasso records will not preclude museums from staging Picasso exhibitions. "They just raise the cost of doing business," he said.
Among other big-ticket items on the block in London were two Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet. His "Pont du Chemin de Fer" sold for $12.5 million and "Le Pont Japonais" brought $11.1 million. The record for a Monet is $24.5 million, paid for "In the Prairie" last June at Sotheby's in London.
Christie's officials said they had hoped that "Acrobat and Young Harlequin" would bring another moment of auction-house glory. After the Nov. 14 record-setting sale of "Motherhood" in an $85-million auction of the William and Edith Mayer Goetz collection, Christopher Burge, president of Christie's in New York, told reporters that the London sale was likely to upset that mark.
Picasso painted "Acrobat and Young Harlequin," a predominantly pink and blue canvas, in 1905 when he lived in the Montmartre section of Paris and frequented a nearby circus at the Place Pigalle. His wistful interpretations of costumed entertainers, caught at introspective moments, have become popular favorites.
Confiscated by Nazis
"Acrobat and Young Harlequin" was exhibited in 1905, soon after its completion, and was reviewed by French critic Guillaume Apollinaire. Sometime during the next six years, it became the property of the Museum of Wuppertal-Elberfeld in Germany, where it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1937 and cited as an example of "degenerate" modern art.
The work appeared in 1939 at an auction in Lucerne, where Belgian collection Roger Janssen bought it for 80,000 Swiss francs. Christie's did not reveal the name of the seller but said the painting had been in private collections for almost 50 years.