Masterpieces Are Recession-Proof

Recession-Proof? So proclaimed New York art dealer, Guy Bennett, after a work by Picasso set the new bar for most paid for a piece of art at auction: $106.48 million.

That’s on the same day that stocks enjoyed their biggest one-day correction since February (only to outdone later in the week). This bidding war at Christie’s took nine minutes. Seven suitors lost out to an unidentified phone buyer.

Tell him what he’s won: “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.” Picasso painted it back in 1932. The nude woman: Marie-Therese Walter. The green leaves: a philodendron. The bust: Picasso’s profile looking down on his mistress, who’s radiant, reclined and ripe, like a fat fish ready to be slit open and fried. (Or, as Alastair Sooke, of the Telegraph calls her: “a passive, pneumatic sex doll.”)

Is she worth what the buyer paid? Okay, so the rapturous dame is five feet tall and four feet wide. That’s impressive. She’s a nice, surreal shade of lilac — in contrast to everything we’ve ever learned about Picasso’s love life. In fact, at the time the middle-aged Picasso painted this, he was married to Olga, whom he depicted as toothy, jagged and spiky… a perfect middle-aged Harpy.

Quell relief! According to a 1968 Life magazine story, the seventeen-year-old Marie Therese met Picasso as she was coming out of the metro after a little shopping. He grabs her by the arm, “I’m Picasso,” he boasts, “You and I are going to do great things together.”

Great things, so says the auctioneer’s gavel. Even Christie’s wasn’t ready to break out champagne in this climate… the low-end estimate was a mere $70 million. The first bid was $58 million, and ratcheted up in one million dollar increments. From $86 million on, just two phone bidders fought for ownership. A $95 million bid clinched it — plus the Christie’s sales charge.

Dealer Richard Feigin chalks it up to “a lot of money going around. It doesn’t want to sit in currencies so it goes into art.”

As for the seller, how’d she do? While, she’s not around to reap the profits, Frances Brody estate scored a coup. Back in 1951, Brody paid $17,000 for the Picasso. In 2010’s weak dollar terms that’s about $146,845. Not bad to multiply your money 725 times.

A Lesson In What Won’t Sell

What not to buy? Take a gander at the work that garnered not a single suitor in Christie’s auction: Edvard Munch’s “Fertility.” The Expressionist pioneer’s painting left auctioneer, Christopher Burge crying “$23 million” in vain.

The high-end estimate was $35 million — too much to pay? Well, consider who Edvard Munch is. He put Scandinavia on the art world’s map. You know him from his famous painting “The Scream.”

Like the Picasso, this was the first time “Fertility” was ever offered at auction. It’s one of the most important works of Munch’s remaining in private hands. I saw it most recently when it was on loan for a special Munch retrospective at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. This painting opened a new stage in his career.

Why do people buy paintings? Mistresses and gossip. Or a nude women to hang over the bar. Perhaps Fertility should have been less subtle and taken off her clothes, rather than suggestively offering her bowl of bright red cherries. But we do have a mistress here…

The subject is Tulla Larson, a bourgeois daughter of a wine merchant with whom Munch had a fiery affair. No exaggeration. The final act saw Munch shoot off a part of the finger on his left hand in an argument with Tulla. (I’m guessing the ring finger.)

In the 1899-1900 painting, we see all the signs of what will befall the couple by 1902 — in addition to Munch’s crippling issues with women. Literally. See that cane sitting next to the good peasant man on the right? That’s Munch. The woman, Tulla, visibly pregnant, is luminous and laden. Between the man and the woman stands a tree. Call it the tree of life, or, just a cherry tree. The important symbol is the fresh wound in the tree trunk. A newly cut bough’s nakedness shines a brilliant orange — like the cherries and the woman’s dress. Does the wound spell disaster or new regeneration?

And this painting found no art lovers to take it home and polish its frame. Not even a single dealer thought she could turn it around for a big enough profit. (Gee, maybe because it’s only four feet by four and a half).

Does Fertility suffer because it isn’t full of simple, fat pleasing shapes, sweet curves and pastel colors? In fact, it is replete with curves; they just aren’t highlighted by black grade-school lines. Like today’s market data, they are a little harder to read. The insinuations are dark and murky.

What Picasso Tells Us About the Market

Earnings season is upon us and even the borderline sectors, like REITs and car rental stocks, finesse earnings into pleasing numbers. Investors seemed as eager as Picasso’s easy teen Marie Therese. Everyone, from the Treasury to CEOs and CFOs, wants to treat us like dumb, pneumatic sex dolls. We’ll deflate when they say, inflate when they say, and open our wallets for them at the slightest blip on the Street.

But consumer-investors show signs of wakening conscience. This week’s market flirts dangerously with correction. While we’ve enjoyed the upswing, we’ve known a cooling down is in order. People want simple, fat returns. A down market should only turn up in a gentle U or a stellar V. The truth of the matter is, as a national economy, we’re more like Picasso, the entrepreneur-dreamer sitting at home with the middle-age harpy: national deficit, Greek contagion, costly wars. etc. etc. Reality nags, ever ruining the fun of a good run up.

A painting of the true market picture would look more like Munch’s “Fertility” — sure, there’s a lot of green, but it’s not in the obvious sexy stuff. And, like Munch’s tree of life, a big cut could be a wound, or it could mean new life. I think the sellers and buyers saw that on Thursday, May 6 — a frenzied half-hour for the Dow record books. A 997-point drop saw a new crew come right back in. For now, they almost balanced each other out. Good for a 348-point correction.

When it comes to markets, whom would we rather trust: the moody Norwegian ready for disaster at every corner, with a plump oil and gas-fueled government pension fund… and a member of the richest economy in the world? Or would you trust the philandering Francophile Spaniard who enjoys his present, at the expense of his future… not giving a damn about those he trod down as he sowed success?

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking at buying a few paintings… and checking out the best ways to get in on the petrokroner.

Samantha Buker
for The Daily Reckoning