AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK, PICASSO’S DORA MAAR AU CHAT HAD PADDLES FLYING
For the balance of the twentieth century, her portrait would hang hidden from the public in the estates of only a handful of known owners.
On an evening in May on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it appeared again—this time to an audience of more than a thousand who crowded to see the masterpiece illuminated on the revolving platform of the Sotheby’s auction block.
That night, Dora Maar au Chat (Dora Maar with Cat) sold for $95 million to an anonymous bidder, becoming at the time the second most valuable piece of art ever sold at auction and elevating the celebrity of its already-famous painter, Pablo Picasso.
Officials for the auction house say negotiations for the piece, which is named for Picasso’s mistress and muse, began at least as early as February, though it will not confirm the identity of the previous owner. (Officials do say, however, that the piece had been his since 1963.) Art-watchers claim it was the Gidwitz family of Chicago.
Even on the evening that Dora Maar made her appearance, the art auction itself was far less frenetic than one might guess. From a body of hundreds of potential bidders in the room, only a few ever raised their paddles and, chances are, these few had already spoken with representatives from the auction house about their intentions. When the stakes are this high, the fates of these pieces cannot afford to be decided with an impulsive nod to the auctioneer. Sotheby’s acknowledged that there was “a lot of presale work involved with the potential bidders” before Dora Maar hit the auction block, including a month-long tour through Hong Kong and London this spring.
Even still, competition that evening for Dora Maar swung dramatically between an eager man waving his paddle in the back of the room and a more tentative candidate on the phone.As the bidding settled just short of $100 million in favor of the man in the room, heads turned immediately. Who was he?
Speculating about the identity of the successful bidder has become something of a parlor game for observers who watch the high-end art market.Though some believe the man was an agent acting on behalf of an established absentee collector, a New York-based newspaper reported shortly after the sale that the buyer was Roustam Tariko, a Russian businessman and Forbes magazine’s most eligible billionaire bachelor. Tariko has denied this claim, most recently in the New Yorker.
Regardless, Sotheby’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York, David Norma, does not express surprise at the portrait’s success at auction. Norma credits two factors. First, on the supply side, he said “there are really very few works of this scale, magnitude and importance that are going to be available for private purchase.” Second, Norman observes “a moment in the art market where we see tremendous demand and tremendous wealth.”