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$85m portrait helps Picasso eclipse Van Gogh as art’s biggest name

08 May 2006Written by ATG Reporter

Pablo Picasso has become the ultimate luxury brand. On May 3 at Sotheby’s New York Picasso’s rare and iconic 1941 portrait, Dora Maar au chat, became the world’s second most expensive painting when it sold for $85m (£48.3m) to a mystery buyer in the room, widely presumed to be representing a Russian oligarch.

Estimated at $50m-70m and contested by at least five bidders, the Dora Maar portrait fell just $8m short of the all-time $93m (£54.7m) record achieved two years earlier at Sotheby's for Picasso's Garçon à la Pipe. Four out of 10 of the world's most expensive paintings are now works by Picasso. Van Gogh still features three times in this list, with the $75m (£45.7m) Portrait of Dr Gachet sold at Christie's in May 1990 at the height of the last art boom dropping to number three.

The recent shift in collectors' taste from Impressionism to Modernism was tellingly underlined in New York on May 2 when Christie's had to lower the reserve on Van Gogh's L'Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux, in order to find a buyer.

This 1890 portrait of an ageing cafe proprietress wasn't, in purely commercial terms, the most glamorous of images, but it had been painted in the climactic last year of the painter's life and it had never appeared at auction before. It was eventually knocked down to an anonymous buyer, rumoured to be the Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, for $36m (£20.5m), well below the published $40m-50m estimate.

Overall, however, the figures at Christie's and Sotheby's evening Impressionist & Modern sales were exhibiting all the signs of a booming market. Both auctions found buyers for over 85 per cent of their lots. Christie's aggregate of $180m (£103m) was nearly $40m up on the equivalent sale last year, while Sotheby's bumper $207.5m (£119m) total was their highest since May 1990.

The art market is booming, but different art - and different buyers - are generating the most serious prices this time round.

By Scott Reyburn

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