Yo! Picasso! : Anyone Can Still Pick Up a Little Modern Art for a Few Hundred Thousand : Anyone Can Pick Up a Little Modern Art for a Few Hundred Thousand

Times Art Writer

It's a thankless job--one that brings no headlines or awe-struck stares--but somebody has to buy all the Picassos that sell for less than $47.85 million.

Fortunately for Sotheby's and Christie's, Picasso enthusiasts were up to the task this week in a series of auctions of Impressionist and modern art. On the morning after the record-breaking sale of an early self-portrait called "Yo Picasso," hardy dealers and collectors slogged through the rain to attend Sotheby's auction of relatively low-priced drawings and watercolors.

Picasso was only one of 46 artists whose works were in the sale, but his pieces fared notably well. "Woman in a Hairnet," a starry-eyed portrait of Francoise Gilot, drawn with ink on a 27 1/2x21 3/4-inch zinc plate, for example, sold for $363,000, more than doubling its estimated top value of $150,000.

"Head of a Bearded Man With a Cigarette," a furiously drawn crayon image of a face viewed from several angles at once, brought $286,000 instead of the estimated bid of $150,000 to $200,000.

A 1969 crayon sketch of a nude woman and three men's heads that Sotheby's had valued at $50,000 to $60,000 brought $137,500. The same drawing in 1982 was sold for $25,000 at the Wolf Schulz Gallery in San Francisco. "It's very disheartening," Schulz said when reached by telephone at his gallery.

But as one auction observer commented: "Picasso is hot now."

Two of the 14 Picassos offered at Sotheby's drawings and watercolors sale failed to attract buyers, but most others exceeded their most optimistic estimates. A bawdy pencil drawing of a trio of personages--a wrinkled old woman, a voluptuously convoluted female nude and a man with lust in his eyes--sailed past its estimated price of $50,000 to $70,000 and sold for $148,500. A few minutes later, an ink-wash drawing of a bearded man, valued at $45,000 to $55,000, fetched $77,000.

At Christie's comparable sale of drawings and watercolors Thursday morning, a Picasso appeared on the cover of the catalogue and a dozen were offered for sale. Estimates ranged from $12,000 to $350,000.

The first Picasso offered at Christie's, a tiny drawing of a blind beggar, failed to sell, but the Art Institute of Chicago's 1920 gouache drawing of a seated woman fetched $385,000--$35,000 above its estimate.

The next Picasso, a 1921 contour drawing of a leafy vine, attracted fierce competition and finally sold for $198,000--far above its estimated price of $40,000 to $50,000.

"Head of a Man With a Moustache," a gouache portrait of a professor (the catalogue's cover boy), was valued at $250,000 to $350,00, but it sold for $605,000.

Another major artist riding high this week, particularly in the small-ticket sales, is Joan Miro. His fanciful watercolor, "Young Girl Skipping Rope," brought $550,000, about twice its estimate and the top price in Sotheby's drawings and watercolors sale.

Miro's "Personnage," an ink drawing of a whimsical character on a splashy pink background, also doubled its estimate and fetched the sale's second-highest price of $495,000. All but one of the seven Miro drawings and watercolors at Sotheby's far outstripped predictions.

Drawings and watercolors by Miro also did extremely well at Christie's. An untitled 1924 drawing brought $253,000 instead of the estimated $120,000 to $160,000. An unusual collaged composition, valued at $60,000 to $80,000, soared to $330,000, while a colorful gouache called "The Messenger Bird," estimated at $300,000 to $400,000, brought $506,000.

Salvador Dali's market was expected to rise after his death earlier this year, but it seems to be just holding its own. Four watercolors and drawings offered at Sotheby's brought their estimated prices. However, "The Two Harlequins," a large 1942 painting of a pair of figures on pedestals in a desert, valued at $1.8 million to $2.2 million, didn't find a buyer Wednesday night at Christie's.

"I guess death didn't help him," one observer remarked.

Clients changed from their evening wear of dark suits and silk dresses to tweeds and sweaters for the daytime sales. But as hopeful buyers poured into Sotheby's and Christie's sale rooms in search of affordable art, prices continued to rise. These days, six-figure price tags are quite common at the low end of the scale and seven-figure sales are on the rise.

One of the first pieces to sell Thursday morning at Christie's, for example, was a $1.1-million pastel drawing of a cafe singer by Edgar Degas. About an hour later, "La Danse I," Henri Matisse's gouache, ink-and-pencil design for a three-part mural, brought $1.65 million from Jeffery Deitch, who runs an art advisory service in New York.

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