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One of the most celebrated sales of my years working as a specialist in the Impressionist Department was the sale of Victor and Sally Ganz which set new levels for 20th Century painting as the century came to a close in 1997.
It was a benchmark sale of a truly great American collection which caught the imagination of everyone in the art world and exceeded the expectations of the most seasoned professionals. It was one of the first occasions where a major collection spanning the whole of the 20th Century, but focussing mainly on Post-War art, attracted buyers at the highest level from every collecting community. There was a sense that Christie’s reach had become truly global.
This was also the year that I began to auctioneer Evening sales and little did I know that almost 20 years later I would be in the rostrum bringing down the gavel on the first painting to break £100,000,000, and more to the point, a painting which had been a centrepiece in that Ganz sale at Christie’s Park Avenue in 1997.
Travelling to New York to take the sale I knew that on the night of Monday 11 May we were likely to make auction history. The real joy of the project was that the most senior team here at Christie’s, led by Olivier Camu and Loic Gouzer, had been involved in creating a brilliant campaign for this masterpiece. Moreover, so many people at Christie’s had been involved in ensuring that the painting received the publicity that it deserved, that as I stood in the rostrum I knew that the whole of our great firm were willing the picture on to succeed.
Painted in 1955, Les femmes d’Alger, (Version “O”) was a work which we knew Picasso had committed his full genius to. Drawing inspiration from Delacroix, and spurred on by the recent death of his great friend Matisse, the Mozart of the 20th Century created a masterpiece to grace any great museum. It was as if this was understood by everybody in the saleroom as Lot 8 was presented to the audience to be sold.
Opening the bidding at an unprecedented $100,000,000, we moved swiftly in bids of one million, stretching the bidding of many collectors until after eleven and a half minutes the bidding finally slowed and the hammer was brought down to loud applause and cheers from the room at a record breaking $179,365,000 with premium — neatly past the one hundred million pound mark for the very first time in auction history.
This historic evening in New York clearly demonstrated that we had entered a new era in the art market where collectors all over the world are prepared to compete for the very best in every category and are prepared to chase masterpieces to levels which we have never seen before. A fact that was reiterated six months later when Modigliani’s magnificent Nu couché set a new standard as it too passed the one hundred million pound mark in our Muses sale in November.
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (Version "O"), 1955. Oil on canvas. 44 7/8 x 57 5/8 in. (114 x 146.4 cm.) Estimate: On request. Sold for $179,365,000 on 11 May at Christie's New York © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2015
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