Christie's specialists offer tips on buying and collecting, from what to look for in a glaze to how to read hidden stamps and markings
Picasso designed 633 different ceramic editions between 1947 and 1971, with a number of variants and unique pieces resulting from these initial works. Although he began by producing decorated utilitarian objects, such as plates and bowls, he later produced more complex forms such as pitchers and vases — their handles occasionally shaped to form facial features, or anatomical parts where they depicted animals. With Picasso remaining one of the highest grossing artists at auction today, the range of his ceramics means it’s easy to choose a work that is both an investment and something you’ll love. So there really is a perfect Picasso ceramic for everyone.
Over the course of his lifetime Picasso explored a number of different ceramic techniques, experimenting with paint, playing with form, or engraving the clay’s surface. Eventually, extensive research led him to adopt two main production methods. The first was based on the painstaking replication of an original object by hand, following its form and decoration as closely as possible. The second saw the artist create original images in dry clay moulds, transferring a design onto fresh clay — works made using this method carry the mark Empreinte originale de Picasso.
Every ceramic produced by Picasso features a stamp or marking, which can be found on the underside of the work, on the reverse — or even inside the piece itself. Some editions also feature their edition number (e.g. 1/40) or a date. These stamps and markings differ from one edition to another, and evolve over time. The most common, however, are ‘Madoura Plein Feu’, ‘Empreinte Originale de Picasso’ and ‘Edition Picasso’.
When deciding whether to buy any ceramic, it’s important to know how to assess its condition. Here, date can provide a useful guide. It is much rarer, for example, to come across ceramics that are still perfect in Picasso’s earlier editions. If it’s written, the number of the edition should also be taken into consideration — a work that is number one in a series of 500 (1/500) will have been made much earlier than work number 500/500.
Another consideration is whether the ceramic is glazed, unglazed or partially glazed; it is not uncommon to find faint handling marks on unglazed areas. Ceramic, however, is a complex medium, and small imperfections resulting from the production process should not be confused with condition issues. Cracks from firing, crazing — or very fine cracks — in the glaze, and marks from the studio are all part of the final piece.
Picasso produced more than 3,500 ceramic designs, including plates, vases, dishes, tiles and pitchers. Whether a bullfighting scene, a visage plate, an owl, goat or fish plate, or a portrait of his last muse and second wife, Jacqueline Roque, each work will sit differently depending on the surroundings — a particular design might fit better in one room than in another, depending on its shape and colour.
Our buyers often have more than one Picasso ceramic at home and, when deciding to buy a new piece, will often be influenced by what is already in their collections. Some will seek out works that can easily be displayed alongside the rest of their collection, choosing to echo a particular theme or style. Others, however, will pursue a ceramic that is completely different from anything they already own, gradually amassing examples of several of Picasso’s editions. Decide what means more to you for your collection — variety or consistency.
The sheer variety of Picasso ceramics is part of their enduring appeal. Recognising your preferences, however, can help to refine the collecting process considerably. Take time to consider whether you attach more importance to the shape and colour of the work, or prefer to focus on other aspects, such as the size of the edition, the year of conception, or the condition of the work. Do you prefer plates or vases? Goats or mythological creatures? Colourful or rustic styles?