Picasso Tenant Une De Les Sculptures, 1939
Holden Luntz Gallery
Half a century since his passing, Pablo Picasso retains a central role in today’s art world. This year, a slew of museum shows, gallery exhibitions, and documentary series have marked the 50th anniversary of his death with reappraisals—and the occasional reassessment—of the artist’s legacy and influence.
Considered by many to be the greatest artist of the 20th century, few names loom as large over contemporary art today. Though the anniversary of his death has prompted a thorough reexamination of the artist’s personal life (especially his relationships with women), this conversation has done little to dim interest in his oeuvre.
“The magic of Picasso’s legacy is not only the fundamental impact he’s had on artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s his impact on art history and on the way we see the world today,” said Isabelle de La Bruyère, CEO of Opera Gallery, which, through its branches in 16 worldwide locations, has dealt extensively in works by the artist.
Maternité, ca. 1899
As artistic trends and tastes have evolved and changed, interest in Picasso remains as robust and omnipresent as ever. As Jay-Z rapped in 2013, “I just want a Picasso in my casa,” relaying an attitude that is as true today as it was a decade ago. Indeed, this sentiment is even more long-established: For almost as long as he has been a prominent artist, Picasso has been coveted by collectors and the art market. “Commercially he has become the costliest painter alive and aesthetically he has remained the most influential,” reads a New Yorker article from 1939, in which an anonymous dealer tells the magazine: “I am now buying Picasso not because I have any taste for him, but because he will be worth a lot of money someday.”
That anonymous dealer was right: Picasso’s position in the 21st-century art market is singular. Historically, five works by the artist have fetched more than $100 million at auction—more than any other artist. Meanwhile, Picasso’s genius is uniquely prolific: It’s estimated that the artist produced about 50,000 artworks, including prints, ceramics, works on paper, sculptures, and, of course, paintings.
Tête, Étude pour une sculpture, 1912
Paul Stolper Gallery
Femme Nue Assise , 1903
Paul Stolper Gallery
“Picasso’s work is still exciting, and since he was so prolific there’s more and more to learn and discover, which is so fascinating. It allows for further research, which only helps chronicle the many artistic stages he went through in his long life,” said Paul Stolper, whose eponymous gallery in London is currently staging “A Painter’s Studio Should Be A Laboratory,” a selection of drawings, collages, cut-outs, and ceramics by Picasso that span from 1907 to 1958, on view until February 3, 2024. “With this continued interest it makes living with a Picasso on your wall a real conversation piece that continues to be relevant even 50 years after he died.”
This desirability results in some astonishing sales figures. Take the top end of Picasso’s market. In November, Femme à la montre (1932) became the most expensive work sold under the hammer this year, going for $139.3 million at Sotheby’s. This price might represent a lofty summit, but further investigation using the Artsy Price Database shows that even the 100th-most expensive Picasso work sold at auction this year commanded a hefty price tag of $174,585. This year, in fact, some 672 works were sold by Picasso at auction for a combined sum of $556.3 million.
Hommage à Bacchus, 1960
But recent years under the hammer for the artist have marked a consistent decline in the number of lots. This is clear from preceding years’ data for his market: In 2022, 1,199 works by the artist were sold for a combined sum of $492.8 million; in 2021, 1,359 works sold for $645.67 million; and in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, 1,722 works sold for $333 million. Going even further back to 2015, the year that Picasso set a new auction record (for Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), 1955, which sold for $179.4 million), 2,924 works by the artist were sold at auction houses for a staggering combined price of $705.1 million.
This tells us two things: Picasso inventory is becoming more limited in the auction world, and buying a Picasso work under the hammer is more expensive than it used to be. The median price for a work at auction is higher ($13,970 in 2023, compared to $9,569 in that milestone year of 2015). One reason for this is that collectors who buy works by the artist clearly don’t like letting go of them.
“Though still probably the most transacted artist, with the rise of new high-net-worth collectors in the market, museums, and private foundations burgeoning globally, works by Picasso are entering collections and not coming out,” said de La Bruyère. “As such, there is more demand than the existing, limited supply for strong works by the sought-after artist, and so prices rise.”
Increased demand is also taking place against the backdrop of increased diversity in Picasso collectors. Christie’s in 2022 saw a remarkable 34% increase in the number of millennials buying and bidding on Picasso works compared to 2019. The auction houses also noted a broader geographic range, with 50% of buyers and bidders from the Americas, 40% from EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa), and 10% from APAC (Asia and Pacific).
“The continuing evolution of his market is something to be celebrated, and reflects a blend of seasoned collectors and a growing influx of newer enthusiasts,” said Michelle McMullan, co-head of Christie’s 20th-/21st-century London evening sale. “The market for Picasso remains strong. Buyers are actively engaged in the Picasso market at all levels.”
In the gallery world, meanwhile, there have been some 22 Picasso solo shows this year—and that’s only for shows listed on Artsy. Several of the gallerists that Artsy spoke to noted that they, too, had observed a younger collector base developing an interest in the artist.
La danse des faunes, 1957
“His works keep speaking to newer generations of collectors,” said Raphel Petrov of Galerie Raphael in Frankfurt, which staged a six-decade retrospective of prints and works on paper by the artist that then traveled to Deodato Arte in Milan and reported “a lot” of first-time buyers. “It’s very different from some of his contemporaries [such as] [Henri] Matisse, [Georges] Braque, and [Marc] Chagall, who seem to speak more to an older generation only,” he added.
According to a representative from Findlay Galleries in New York, there is also a stylistic resonance that can be found between the tastes of younger collectors and Picasso.
“The current generation of young collectors do have a heavy interest in works that are in the representational, figurative, and narrative categories. Picasso’s work is firmly ensconced within those parameters,” the gallery’s rep told Artsy.
Tete de faune, 1948
So, where do new collectors start? Findlay—which has represented works by the artist for decades—held a show of Picasso ceramics earlier this year, a medium that is often seen as an ideal entry point for newer collectors. “While they can be considered similar to multiples, every piece in any given edition will be slightly different,” said the representative. “Therefore, even in the same edition, some works are of a significantly higher quality than others. This presents nascent collectors an opportunity to polish their curatorial and collecting skills, identifying subtle differences in pieces and looking for markers of quality.”
“From Picasso ceramics to works on paper and prints, the diversity in demand reflects a healthy and vibrant ecosystem where collectors, both seasoned and new, continue to contribute to the enduring popularity and strength of the Picasso market,” agreed McMullan from Christie’s.
Fifty years after Picasso’s death, there is no sign of the artist shifting from his position at the summit of the art market. As well as providing a critical interpretation of Picasso’s legacy, this year has only served to bolster his relevance today, especially among collectors.