AUCTION history was duly made at Sotheby’s New York on the evening of Wednesday, May 5 when Picasso’s iconic 1905 Rose Period canvas, Garçon à la Pipe, was knocked down for a hammer price of $93m (£54.7m), making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
This bettered, by some distance, the previous high of $75m (£45.7m) paid for Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet at Christie's, New York, in May 1990.
The choicest plum among 34 works being sold from the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney to benefit the charitable works of the Greentree Foundation, Garçon à la Pipe was one of the last undisputed Impressionist and Modern masterpieces to emerge from one of the 20th century's greatest major-name collections. The Whitneys had acquired the painting from the Zurich dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt in 1950 for around $30,000.
A quarter of a century on, the painting had been valued by Sotheby's "in excess of $70m". There was plenty of pre-sale speculation that this Picasso might be the first work to break the $100m hammer price barrier, but on the night, after an initial flurry of competition between four telephones, only the New York dealer Larry Gagosian on a mobile phone and a bidder represented in the room by Sotheby's chairman Warren Weitman were prepared to climb into the financial thin air of $80m-plus. Weitman, who was bidding without a telephone, eventually prevailed at $93m ($104m including premium). Sotheby's, predictably, were keen to keep both the identity and nationality of the buyer deeply anonymous.
The Whitney lots netted a premium-inclusive total of $190m (£112m). The following day's Part I and II Impressionist and Modern sales at Sotheby's netted a further $124m (£73m), creating a combined total of $314m (£185m), which represented the firm's most successful Imp & Mod series since May 1990. Christie's equivalent sales on May 4 and 6 totalled a rather less imposing $75.5m (£44.5m).