Mystery collector snapping up Picassos

In just two days, 13 Picassos sold in London for a total of £113 million. Who’s buying?

What’s happened?

Last month, in the space of 48 hours, 13 Picasso paintings sold for a combined total of £113 million at two auctions in London. Among them, at Sotheby's on February 28th , a painting by Picasso of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter entitled Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée made £49.8 million (€56.7 million). This was the highest price for any painting ever sold at auction in Europe. Other highlights included Le matador (The bullfighter) which made £16.5 million in the same sale at Sotheby's and, at Christie's, the previous day, Mousquetaire et nu assis (a Musketeer and a seated nude) that made £13.7 million.

Who’s buying?

Neither Sotheby's nor Christie's named the bidders but it subsequently emerged that all 13 paintings had been bought by a London art dealership, Gurr Johns, on behalf of an anonymous client. According to the Guardian, Harry Smith, executive chairman and managing director of the firm "declined to comment on the identity of the client for whom he bought the works but said the art world was in the midst of a fresh love affair with Picasso". There is speculation – unconfirmed – that the paintings may be destined for a museum in the Middle East.

Who was Picasso?

Pablo Picasso was a Spanish artist who was born in 1881 and died, aged 91, in 1973. He is, arguably, the most famous artist of the 20th century. He moved to France as a young man and remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation. He had several lovers, was married twice and had four children – the most famous being a daughter, Paloma Picasso, the Spanish businesswoman and designer, who has launched a range of perfumes and cosmetics.

Who was Marie-Thérèse Walter?

Marie-Thérèse Walter was born in France in 1909 and died, by suicide, in 1977, aged 68, four years after Picasso’s death. She was Picasso’s mistress and model for about six years in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She and Picasso had a daughter, Maya.

Why the high price for ‘Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter)’?

The painting depicts her wearing a beret and a check dress. Three bidders competed for the painting, an oil-on-canvas measuring 55cm x 46cm (about 21in x 18in), which appeared on the market for the first time, having been consigned from an unnamed "distinguished private collection". The estimate had been "on request" but was believed to be between £30 and £40 million. The final price, £49.8 million, was the highest ever paid for a work of art at auction in Europe. The vendor was not named but is believed to be a descendant of Marie-Thérèse Walter. The painting dates from 1937 – an important year for Picasso who, that year, also made his most famous painting Guernica, inspired by the aftermath of a bombing raid on the Basque town in the Spanish Civil War.

What did Sotheby’s say about the painting?

Thomas Bompard, head of Sotheby’s London Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sales said it “reveals Picasso’s mastery of the modern portrait” and that “of all of the artist’s styles and decades, this is the one that most epitomises the legacy of Picasso as a portraitist of women – with this particular painting encompassing all of the key elements for which he is recognised and celebrated. It undoubtedly represents what is most desirable for a connoisseur and collector of modern art.”

Is this a world record price for Picasso?

No. Only for Europe. The world-record price for a painting by Picasso was achieved in 2015 when his Les Femmes D'Alger (Version "O") – known in English as The Women of Algiers – made $179.4 million at Christie's, New York.

What’s the highest price ever paid for any painting at auction?

$450.3 million was paid for a re-discovered Leonardo da Vinci painting, Salvator Mundi at Christie's in New York in 2017.

Are there other paintings by Picasso of Marie-Thérèse Walter?

Yes, he painted numerous paintings inspired by her and they have become very valuable. Sotheby's described them as "the finest emblems of love, sex and desire in 20th-century art". The most expensive sold at auction to date was: Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (known in French as Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur) that sold at a Christie's auction in New York in 2010 for $106.5 million. And Sotheby's has yet another one coming to auction (in New York, in May) when Le Repos, depicting Marie-Thérèse Walter sleeping, with a top estimate of $35 million. But that, as often with Picasso, may prove to be conservative.

Can’t afford to buy?

A major exhibition of Picasso's artworks, Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, has just opened at the Tate Modern in London and runs until September 9th, 2018. It contains 100 paintings, sculptures, drawing and photographs, all made in 1932, including three paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter. It has been billed as one of the big art events of the year and is likely to draw visitors from around the world. Anyone planning to visit should book well in advance. Tickets cost £22 – there's a combined entry ticket plus lunch with a menu that "draws inspirations from regions that the artist visited and spent most of his time, including Malaga, Barcelona, Paris and Normandy" at £39 per person.