Nota bene: Flipping modern masters

The two most valuable artworks at the big Sotheby’s evening sale on Monday were both acquired at auction not so long ago. The big Modigliani nude, which has been guaranteed to sell for at least $150 million, sold for $26.7 million at Christie’s in 2003. And a much smaller Picasso, which is being estimated at $25 million to $35 million (or $28 million to $40 million, once you add in Sotheby’s fees), sold for $7.9 million at the exact same auction house in 2000.

The fun fact about the Picasso is that it’s being sold by an amateur painter, Sue Gross, who used to copy her artworks using an overhead projector. When she took the Picasso from her marital home, she replaced it with her own copy, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband didn’t notice: he tried to make arrangements to ship her own copy to her, long after she’d taken possession of the real thing.

In terms of pricing, the 6X increase in value in the Modigliani, since 2003, has handily outperformed the 4X return seen on the Picasso, since 2000. That’s a function in large part of fractal inequality. The Modigliani may or may not be a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a first-rate trophy: it’s the artist’s largest painting, and everything about it, down to the subject matter, makes it perfect for an alpha-male billionaire wanting to show off to his friends and acquaintances. It’s a painting for the top 0.01% of the top 0.01%, and that part of the market has outperformed the market as a whole.

The Picasso, by contrast, at just 18 inches square, is not a trophy: It’s a painting to put next to your bed, or in your library, rather than in pride of place in a more public room. It’s what Dave Hickey would call a “littlish work of art”, rather than a “bigish work of art”, and in the art market, two things tend to matter more than anything else: size, and medium. Other things being equal, a small work will never sell for as much money as a big work, and a work on paper will never sell for as much money as a work on canvas.

That’s why the two pieces being sold by the Berkshire Museum, in the same sale, have such low estimates. The Henry Moore is likely to fetch about $500,000, while the spectacular Picabia, which is big and beautiful enough to fetch millions were it on canvas, is estimated at just $1 million or so. Both of them, of course, are works on paper.

The fact that these pieces are being sold at all is a tragedy, but what’s especially tragic is the fact that the $1.5 million or so that the museum is likely to receive is barely going to make a dent in the $55 million it says it needs to raise.

Nothing in the art market makes a huge amount of sense, but the eyebrow-raising estimate on this list, for me, is the Picasso. I can understand why billionaire Bill Gross bought it for $7.9 million, but for me — call me old-fashioned — there’s a qualitative difference between an $8 million painting and a $30 million painting. At $8 million, you are buying something you love, something which speaks to you personally; at $30 million, you’re buying a trophy. Maybe $30 million baubles are the new $8 million baubles, but I suspect not; I suspect that whoever buys the Picasso today is going to dream of reselling it for $150 million, with a return similar to that on the Modigliani.

But that’s not going to happen. There are just too many Picassos, for starters. And they’re not that special. As Sue Gross told her husband, “Why spend $20 million? I can paint that one for $75.”