MATISSE-PICASSO : rivals at auctions


MATISSEPICASSO : rivals at auctions  [sept. 02]

After London it is now Paris’s turn to host the showdown between the giants of modern art as the Matisse-Picasso exhibition arrives in the French capital, juxtaposing 160 works by Pablo PICASSO and Henri MATISSE. But they often come up against each other at auction. Works by the two masters are regularly found side-by-side in sales catalogues and auction rooms. Occasionally, as in November 2000, they play off each other. So whose reputation benefits most from this dialogue across the bidding floor?

On volumes sold the balance is clearly on the side of Picasso, that most prolific of all artists. In the last ten years 642 of his paintings have gone under the hammer compared to 162 by his friend Henri Matisse. But since 1997 Matisse has been fighting back. His escalating price level has been a constant temptation for anyone with a Matisse. And in five years the number of his works put up for auction has doubled.

Both artists set new records in 2000. On 8 November Femme aux Bras Croisés (1901-1902), the great oil painting from Picasso’s blue period, sold for USD50 million in New York, the highest price ever paid for a Picasso. The next day, on 9 November, Matisse bounced back with his own rather more modest record. Coming onto the market at the peak of the price rises (+47% between January and December 2000), La Robe Persane (1940), estimated at USD9-12 million, found a buyer at USD15.5 million. At the time a host of Matisse works were going for well above even the most optimistic estimates.


And 2000 was also the only year when the price level for Matisse oils overtook that for Picasso. Matisse drawings have been outstripping Picasso since 1998, and in 2002 are fetching, on average, nearly twice the price. Picasso clearly excels at prints (more than 7,000 have gone under the hammer since 1992), but those of Matisse are also highly prized. Since 2000 the price level of Matisse prints (close to EUR3,000) has been higher than that of Picasso prints. So, even if his canvases are still a lot less expensive than Picasso’s, Matisse is gaining ground in medium after medium. Between January and June 2002 Matisse prices gained another 19% while Picasso’s fell by 3.8%. From an investment point of view the battle looks won.

The peculiar fascination with Matisse has been felt not just in rising prices and volumes, but also in a particularly low rate of unsolds. Nearly 80% of Matisse paintings put up for auction found a buyer. Paintings of Picasso have twice the buy-in rate. In 2001, 40% of his paintings remained unsold.

The « Matisse-Picasso » exhibition ends its run in New York on 20 May 2003 at the MoMA, just after Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold prestigious modern art sales. Expect the sales catalogues to pay tribute to the exhibition.