Picasso's 'Woman with a Watch' fetches USD 139 million at NY auction

Sotheby's employees take phone bids during the "The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined" auction for Pablo Picasso's "Femme a la Montre" at Sotheby's in New York City on 8 November, 2023.

One of Pablo Picasso's masterpieces, ‘Woman with a Watch’, was sold at auction Wednesday night for USD 139.3 million by Sotheby's in New York, the second-highest price ever achieved for the artist.

In a jam-packed room at the venerable auction house, it only took a few minutes of telephone bidding for the 1932 painting depicting one of the Spanish artist's companions and muses, the French painter Marie-Therese Walter, to be sold.

"Femme a la montre" had been valued at over USD 120 million before going on the block, according to Sotheby's.

It was part of the house's special sale this week of the collection of New York arts patron Emily Fisher Landau, who died this year at age 102.

Sotheby's employees take phone bids during the 'The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined' auction for Pablo Picasso's 'Femme a la Montre' at Sotheby's in New York City on 8 November, 2023.

Julian Dawes, Sotheby's head of impressionist and modern art, called the Picasso canvas -- which hung in Landau's living room -- "a masterpiece by every measure."

"Painted in 1932 -- Picasso's 'annus mirabilis' -- it is full of joyful, passionate abandon yet at the same time it is utterly considered and resolved," he said.

Walter was regarded as Picasso's ‘golden muse’, and features in another of his works going under the hammer on Thursday at Christie's: ‘Femme endormie’, or ‘Sleeping Woman’, estimated to sell for USD 25-USD 35 million.

She also featured in ‘Femme assise pres d'une fenetre (Marie-Therese)’, or ‘Woman Sitting Near a Window’, which was sold in 2021 for USD 103.4 million.

Walter met Picasso in Paris in 1927, when she was just 17 and the Spanish artist was still married to Russian-Ukrainian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. The couple had a daughter, who died last year.

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Another Picasso from 1932 was sold for USD 106 million in 2010. The record sale for one of his works was of ‘The Women of Algiers (Version O)’, a 1955 oil painting which sold for USD 179.4 million.

When it went under the hammer at Christie's New York in 2015, it was also the record for any work of art sold at auction.

It was dethroned in November 2017 by the sale of ‘Salvator Mundi’ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which went for USD 450 million and holds the record to this day.

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Fifty years after his death in 1973 at age 91, Picasso remains one of the most influential artists of the modern world, often hailed as a dynamic and creative genius.

But following the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, his reputation has been tarnished by accusations he exerted a violent hold over the women who shared his life and inspired his art.

Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker takes bids for Andy Warhol's 'The Shadow' during Sotheby's auction of Emily Fisher Landau collection, including Picasso's 'Femme à la montre' in New York City on 8 November, 2023.

Sotheby's has already netted USD 406 million in sales from Landau's collection, which also includes works by Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.

‘Flags’ by the 93-year-old Johns sold for USD 41 million, while ‘Securing the Last Letter (Boss)’ by painter and photographer Ed Ruscha sold for USD 39.4 million.

Auction houses are enjoying a healthy art and luxury goods market, driven by China and showing no signs of a slowdown, said Kelsey Reed Leonard, head of contemporary art sales at Sotheby's.

Against a backdrop of wars in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as worldwide inflation, the two titans of the sector -- Sotheby's and Christie's -- will be moving a host of big-ticket lots in the autumn sales, though they may still have a hard time topping last year, when total sales hit a record USD 16 billion.