Absinthe and logarithms

(Reuters) – Christie’s has put a record price tag on an important Picasso painting from his celebrated Blue Period that will be offered for sale in London in June. Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker), dated 1903, is expected to fetch 30-40 million pounds ($45-60 million), the highest pre-sale estimate for any work of art offered at auction in Europe.

I don’t know if anyone else does this, but I think about art prices on a logarithmic scale, the way we rate earthquakes and loud noises. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (I), which sold for $138 million in today’s dollars, would be an 8.1. The most expensive single works by Jeff Koons or John Singer Sargent are around 7.4. Mary Cassatt’s about a 6½; Borduas or Kurelek, around 5½; and so on, right down to the creators of embroidery samplers at your local craft fair. Logarithms make things like this a lot more comprehensible; they make the whole Great Chain of Being visible, they permit interpolation and prediction, and they run almost from 1 to 10. To 9, anyway, if you assume that there are objets d’art with a hypothetical market value of nearly a billion dollars, which there surely are. It’s not important how much an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre is worth at auction, of course, except that an ounce of revealed preference is worth a ton of gum-flap.

Picasso has a lot of paintings still changing hands between collectors and is therefore always contending for nominal-dollar auction records. It’s interesting to me to find him still doing so 40 years after his death; somebody paid a magnitude-8 price for a Dora Maar painting a few years ago. How much of Picasso’s standing in the marketplace comes from the plain fact that he became synonymous with “painting” during his life—largely on the basis of bluster and myth and populist touches and, above all, surviving the big wars cockroach-fashion—and that, as a result, even dumb people have heard of him and have a shot at recognizing his work? I am inclined to think the answer is “A lot”. Nor does it hurt that there’s a lingering fragrance (or stench) of Old Left romanticism attached to his name.

I don’t mean to suggest that these features of Picasso are not every bit as “real” as his technical gifts or his innovativeness, but when one considers these paintings as equities, as items that will have a certain resale value in the year 2100, the social resonances that accompany the man’s name are bound to fade in memory. I wonder if he will remain an 8. When some Japanese executive pays that kind of price for a good Van Gogh, he’s paying for Van Gogh’s power—acquired by being spiritually injured in a certain way, at a particular place and time—to endow ordinary objects and scenes with a particular beauty and cosmic significance. Van Gogh might not be your particular cup of cadmium, but somebody will definitely still feel that way about those paintings in the future. It’s a lot harder to be sure about Picasso, at least in his various 20th-century incarnations.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.