Picasso Work Sets Record at $48.9 Million

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A Japanese company that wants to put the Pablo Picasso masterpiece “Les Noces de Pierrette” on display in an auto racing theme park outbid rivals in Paris and Tokyo at an auction Thursday and agreed to pay a record $48.9 million for it.

The price offered by Nippon Autopolis Co. fell short of the record $53.9 million bid for Vincent Van Gogh’s “Irises” at a New York auction in 1987, but was the highest price ever for a Picasso. It made this the largest single art sale in French history.

“We wanted to give the Japanese people a chance to have a real masterpiece like this,” Takeshi Inaba, Nippon Autopolis’ managing director, said in Tokyo after making the winning bid at the Bunkamura Shibuya auction house there.


The bidding took place by means of a television hookup between the Tokyo auction house and the Drouot-Montaigne auction house in Paris, where the 48-by-78-inch painting, from the artist’s Blue Period, was on display. The painting shows circus characters gathered around a table after the wedding of a young woman to an older man. In the foreground, a harlequin blows a kiss to the bride.

Before the sale could be completed, the painting’s owner, Swedish investor Frederic Roos, had to get the French government’s approval to export it. French Culture Minister Jack Lang granted this after Roos donated another well-known Picasso work, “Celestine,” from the same period.

“Celestine” went on display Thursday night at the Picasso Museum in the Marais District of the city.

The sale faced a complicated legal challenge from the sister of a former owner, Paris lawyer Bernard Baque de Sariac, that was not resolved until the eve of the auction. Valerie de Sariac argued that her brother had sold the painting to Roos illegally in June, 1988.

The legal uncertainties and other questions about the painting may have held back the selling price. The French auction house Drouot had hoped for a record price of 400 million francs, about $68 million, to enhance the image of the French art market, which lags behind London and New York, mostly because of restrictive French laws restricting export of national art treasures.

“You can never be sure that the legal problems are over,” Paris art dealer Herve Odermatt said. Odermatt, who runs one of the city’s best-known art galleries, was the main bidder against the Japanese in a furious four-minute exchange that saw the price rise from an opening bid of 100 million francs, about $16 million, to the selling price of nearly $49 million.


Odermatt, flanked by French actor Alain Delon in the sumptuous Paris bidding salon on the Avenue Montaigne, bid 280 million francs for the work. The Japanese bidder responded instantly with the winning bid of 300 million.

There was a pause of more than a minute as the auctioneers in Tokyo and Paris surveyed the rooms for another bid. Finally, the auctioneer in Tokyo said, “Paris, we are waiting for you.” When there was no answer, he counted “three, two, one,” and closed the sale with a stroke of his gavel.

Despite the price, there was surprisingly little drama in the event. Delon, an art collector as well as actor, said, “The sale was a little sad, a little soft.”

Nevertheless, auctioneer Jean-Claude Binoche celebrated the sale as a sign that Paris has joined the world’s top international art markets.

“It was a magnificent price,” Binoche said. “Paris is now the point of reference. This proves that one can sell here just as well, if not better.”

Paloma Picasso, daughter of the late artist, said: “It is an extraordinary price. I don’t know what my father would have thought.”


The Japanese representative of Autopolis, owned jointly by several large Japanese corporations including NEC Corp., Sapporo Breweries and Hazama-Gumi Ltd., said that his company plans to use the painting as the centerpiece of a museum at the auto racing theme park under construction in the mountains of southern Japan.