With dealers convinced a new buyer was hunting Picassos, a ripple effect washed over the market. At June’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland, the Spanish painter’s work was prominently displayed and boldly priced. But almost all of it went unsold. “These kinds of price jumps complicate things,” explains Nahmad. “I had a Dora Maar that I was trying to buy, and the seller said his was better than the one at Sotheby’s, so he wanted $150 million for it.”
But the May auction’s ramifications go beyond just the Russian-collector sphere or the Picasso market. “That Dora Maar sale was not a turning point because of who was bidding,” says Meyer, “but because it makes us realize a new person can come in at any time, unexpectedly bidding at billionaire levels.”
Even before its tumultuous sale, the Dora Maar painting was a bit of an auction-world freak case. “Usually, we’ve been closely tracking any work at this level for a long time, but we never knew this Picasso existed,” explains Norman. “Christie’s had known about the picture for years, but they were keeping us at bay, helping the family with things like valuations for insurance.” Yet earlier this year, one family member called in Sotheby’s to appraise the work’s auction potential. Although Norman won’t confirm it, “the family” was Chicago’s Gidwitz clan, heirs to the Helene Curtis cosmetics fortune.
Sotheby’s expert Charles Moffett went to the home of Adele Gidwitz to see the painting in person and immediately uploaded a digital photo to the auction house’s New York headquarters. In what Norman describes as “a ‘Holy shit!’ moment,” Sotheby’s staffers went scurrying to their research library. It took them three days to track down an image. The painting did not figure in any Picasso catalogue raisonné, and it had not been reproduced since 1968, when it appeared in the Art Institute of Chicago’s little-remembered “Picasso in Chicago” exhibition. Norman hopped on a plane the next week, saw the painting himself, and started pushing to secure the piece. The bait: a “guarantee” rumored to be nearly $60 million, ensuring the Gidwitzes that sum even if the painting went unsold. “Maybe Christie’s thought it was worth less than 50,” suggests Norman. “Or maybe they thought they had it sewn up, and they were lowballing the guarantee.” In any case, the family went with Sotheby’s.
With so much on the line, Sotheby’s needed a clear sense of who would pursue the picture. The presale goal of an auction house is to take uncertainty out of the equation by stoking collectors’ desires to a pitch that can turn feverish during the auction. Sotheby’s promoted its Dora Maar aggressively: through magazine ads in Russia, China, America, and Europe, and in its windows at 1334 York Avenue. It also toured the prized Picasso to showrooms in Hong Kong, Paris, and London. (Clearly, the campaign worked: At least four other Dora Maars were floating around for private sale, and their prices suddenly spiked.)
Usually, an auction house can accurately predict which collectors and dealers will drive the sale of big-ticket works, in part because the pool is so small. “We had a list of ten potential bidders for Garçon à la Pipe, and six of them were in it toward the end,” Norman says, referring to last year’s record-setting auction. “With the Dora Maar, of the five people who were still in at $65 million, three were people we had anticipated and the fourth was someone we thought was a ‘maybe.’ ”
“Yes, I think I know who bought the Dora Maar, ”one European dealer admits. “But telling you would be like putting a bullet in my head, businesswise. I’d have to be suicidal.”
Norman conspicuously doesn’t mention the fifth bidder, presumably the winner’s lieutenant. Although Sotheby’s won’t confirm it, art-world insiders assume that the Dora Maar’s winning bidder essentially ambushed the house. Which is not to say that he had not been vetted, because to bid from the floor you need a paddle. And to get a paddle, you need to confirm the ultimate buyer’s identity and financial standing. But once you have a paddle in hand, you can bid on any damn thing in the sale, from the comparatively pedestrian Camille Pissarro landscape sold that night at a mere $318,400 to the Dora Maar at nearly 300 times that figure.
Almost as soon as the hammer came down, the race to find the buyer was afoot. Moscow artist and gallery owner Aidan Salakhova, who has long served as a liaison between the Russian and Western art scenes and who counts several oligarchs among her clients, awoke to a flurry of e-mails and text messages asking for help. Her friend Nic Iljine—a Guggenheim Museum point man in Europe, instrumental both in bringing nickel king Vladimir Potanin onto the museum’s board and organizing its “Russia!” show—had a similar experience: “Within an hour of the Dora Maar sale, I got an e-mail from the Times with that picture of the guy. But I sent it around to my contacts and no one knew him.”