Over the course of seven decades, Pablo Picasso maintained prolific periods of artistic output that cemented his status as the one of most coveted artists of all time. The modernist’s most prized paintings derive from various stages in his life: the early-career Rose and Blue periods and his groundbreaking experiments in Cubism, through his output in the years leading up to and during World War II up to the late 1960s, when he was already world famous.
Central to Picasso’s oeuvre are portraits of his various muses: Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque, each of whom the artist had a series of complicated affairs. These portraits, which range from sensual to tormented, have become some of the most recognizable in art history.
In the years since his death in 1973, Picasso’s stature as an artist elevated to the highest ranks, with some of his works going for more than $100 million in public auctions and reportedly at even higher sums in private deals. Currently, he remains the top-grossing artist at auction worldwide, raking in $245 million across 3,400 lots in 2020 alone. “He is in many ways the gold standard of the art market,” said dealer Larry Gagosian in an interview with ARTnews. “I think he’ll remain that way for the foreseeable future.” Below, a look at the top auction sales of works by the Spanish master.
10 Femme assise, 1909
Femme Assise depicts French artist and model Fernande Olivier, who went with Picasso to a remote village in Spain during the summer of 1909. While there, she posed for number of his pictures.
One of the few early Picasso Cubist works still in private hands, it sold for £43.2 million ($63.4 million) at a Sotheby’s London evening sale in 2016, where it exceeded the $43.1 million pre-sale estimate. The painting’s anonymous seller, who held onto the work for four decades, bought Femme Assise in 1974 at Sotheby’s for £340,000 ($486,000). A telephone bidder with Adam Chinn, Sotheby’s former head of Art Agency, Partners, won the work during Sotheby’s London auction in 2016.
With many of Picasso’s early Cubist works in museum collections, Femme Assise was a rarity on the open market at the time. “There hasn’t been a painting of this importance at auction in potentially a generation,” Helena Newman, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art in London, said at the time.
9Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), 1938
Picasso’s vibrant red portrait of photographer Dora Maar from 1938 measures at only 25⅝ by 21¼ inches. Auctioned by Christie’s New York in May 2015 during the house’s “Looking Forward to the Past” sale, it went for $67.4 million to an anonymous buyer, surpassing its $55 million estimate.
Consigned by Las Vegas casino mogul and top collector Steve Wynn, the work was the third highest sale of the night, which realized the record-setting sale of Picasso’s Delacroix-inspired Les femmes d’Alger ‘Version O’ (1955) for $179.4 million. Before it was acquired by Wynn, it passed through the hands of the artist’s granddaughter Marina Picasso and Geneva modern art dealer Jan Krugier.
8La gommeuse, 1901
Bearing a second painting on the reverse, Picasso’s rare double-sided canvas, La gommeuse (1901) was painted when he was only 19 years old. The artist created the picture while he was grieving his friend and fellow artist Carles Casagemas, who had recently died by suicide.
The work sold for $67.45 million (including the buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s New York in November 2015, though it hammered below its pre-sale estimate of $60 million. The painting’s seller American billionaire Bill Koch had purchased it for $3 million in 1984 at auction.
It wasn’t until 2000 while the work was being conserved that a hidden portrait mocking Picasso’s friend and patron Pere Mañach was discovered. Before Koch owned it, La gommeuse had passed through the hands of esteemed French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, New York dealer Lucien Demotte, and American film director Josef von Sternberg, who bought it in 1935 and sold it in 1949 at Sotheby’s for $3,600.
7Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937
Made in the same year in which Picasso created his famed Guernica and The Weeping Woman amid the tumultuous years of the Spanish civil war, Femme au béret depicts a more joyous image of his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter in a blue outfit set against a bright red background.
The painting made its auction debut during a Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale in London. At that February 2018 sale, the work went for £49.8 million ($68.7 million); the winning bidder was Harry Smith, the London-based chairman of the art advisory firm Gurr Johns, who purchased it along with three other Picassos from the sale. It had changed hands only once before that auction: after Picasso’s death in 1973, his estate sold it to an unknown private collector.
6Dora Maar au chat, 1941
Hidden from the public for more than 40 years, Dora Maar au chat (1941) depicts Picasso’s muse Surrealist photographer Dora Maar seated at center in a chair with a black cat on her shoulder. The painting was first acquired by Paris dealer Pierre Colle first in 1946 and was later owned by Chicago collectors Leigh and Mary Block.
In 2006, Chicago’s Gidwitz family decided to auction the painting at Sotheby’s New York, where it sold for $95.2 million, almost twice the $50 million low estimate. Sotheby’s granted the family a $53 million guarantee in order to secure the painting, a rarity at the time.
At the evening sale, five bidders competed for the work, reportedly among them were Casino magnate Steve Wynn, Ohio retailer Leslie Wexner, and the later Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. But the portrait of Maar went instead to an eager bidder in the room wielding a paddle with the number 1340, in an unusually visible move for a transaction of that level at a marquee auction.
The sale drew speculation as to the true identity of the winning bidder, with many speculating that it could be an ultra-wealthy collector from Russia. Ultimately, it was revealed that Georgian politician and mining tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili was the buyer. At the time, Ivanishvili was preparing to run for the country’s election for Prime Minister. New to the art world at the time, Ivanisvhili has a modern and contemporary art collection worth $1 billion, most of which he keeps in storage in London, with replicas of his masterpieces adorning his Georgian residence.
5Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), 1932
Leading Christie’s 20th-century art evening sale in New York in May 2020, Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) from 1932 sold for $103.4 million, almost double the $55 million pre-sale estimate. After a 19-minute long spar between six bidders, the painting finally sold to a bidder on the phone with Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s co-head of the 20th-century art evening sale, in a moment that proved the art market had returned in full force after a period of economic lag caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Before its sale at Christie’s, it was last exhibited at Paris’s Picasso Museum showcase “Picasso 1932, année érotique” in 2017, alongside mega-collector Steven Cohen’s 1932 Picasso portrait Le Rêve, which he purchased for $155 million in 2013. The following year, Femme assis went to the Tate Modern in London for an exhibition titled “The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932, Love Fame Tragedy.”
The work is notable both for its large size, and in its unusual depiction of Picasso’s muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who is often portrayed as sleeping or dreaming. Here, she is sitting upright in a chair, as if enthroned with her gaze directed at the viewer. The most striking aspect of the piece, Fusco told ARTnews ahead of the sale, is “the incredible presence of this woman and the agency which he’s given her, which you don’t always see in his depictions of her.”
4Garçon à la pipe, 1905
Picasso’s painting of a seated Parisian teenager smoking a pipe and wearing a crown of roses is a signature work from the artist’s Rose Period and it is one of the works from this era that remains in private hands.
In May 2004, the work was offered at an evening sale in New York by Sotheby’s, alongside 33 other pieces from its owners Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney to raise funds for the Greentree Foundation, the family’s charitable organization. The anonymous bidder, who purchased it for $104.1 million (well above the $70 million pre-sale estimate), beat out six others who were vying for it that evening.
The Whitneys had purchased it from a Zurich-based dealer for around $30,000 in 1950. The buyer is believed to have been Guido Barilla, the billionaire heir and chairman of the Barilla pasta company. When it sold in 2004, Garçon à la pipe became the most expensive ever sold at auction, beating out Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), which had sold for $82.5 million in 1990. Garçon à la pipe held that record until May 2010.
3Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932
In May 2010, the star lot of an evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s New York was Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932), from his 1932 series of paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter. During the sale, eight bidders competed for the work, driving the hammer well past the $70 million expectation. It ultimately sold to a bidder on the phone with Marc Porter, Christie’s Americas Chairman.
Held in private hands for 50 years, the painting was sold by Los Angeles philanthropist Frances Lasker Brody, who had purchased it with her husband Sidney F. Brody from New York dealer Paul Rosenberg in January 1951 for less than $20,000.
2Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905
The sale of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s art collection at Christie’s New York, which included top lots by Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet, set a historic high for a single-owner sale in 2018. The piece that ultimately sold for the highest price from their collection was Picasso’s 1905 portrait Fillette a la corbeille fleurie, made during the artist’s Rose Period.
The work’s first owners were Leo and Gertrude Stein, the American siblings and early patrons of modern art, who bought it from a Paris dealer the year it was completed. After Gertrude Stein’s death, the painting was sold from her estate in 1968 to the Syndicate of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where David Rockefeller purchased it for himself.
When the painting sold for a staggering sum of $115 million during the blockbuster Rockefeller auction, it wasn’t the only reason the piece attracted attention. Featuring a fully nude prepubescent girl, wearing only a necklace and holding a basket of red flowers, the work drew controversy over Picasso’s sexualized image of a child— known among historians to be an underaged sex worker named Linda.
The work has long been heralded as a masterpiece, though. “She represents the themes that Picasso would wrestle with for his life—love, sex, beauty, tenderness, violence,” said Marc Porter, Christie’s Americas chairman. Since the record sale of the work, criticism among various scholars surrounding Picasso’s treatment of women has persisted. Protesters in Spain recently staged a demonstration outside of Barcelona’s Picasso museum in an attempt to shed light on the issue.
1Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), 1955
In 1956, the legendary Picasso collector, Victor Ganz, put in an offer to buy the entire 15-piece suite of Picasso’s Delacroix-inspired “Femmes d’Alger” series (1954–55) from Paris dealer Henry Kahnweiler for $212,500. In years to follow, Ganz kept just five from the group after selling the rest of them off to recoup his purchase price; Version ‘O’ was among the few he had onto.
Decades later in 1997, Christie’s staged the blockbuster sale of the Ganzes’ prized Picasso collection in New York, where the piece went for $31.9 million to London dealer Libby Howie, who is said to have purchased it on behalf of a buyer in Europe. Nearly two decades later, Version ‘O’ resurfaced on the market to set a record price of $179.4 million again at Christie’s New York in May 2015, making it the most expensive work to sell at auction at the time. Reported to have been purchased by the Qatari royal Al Thani family, that painting remains the most expensive Picasso ever to be auctioned.