Picasso's Women of Algiers: It broke records by selling for $179m – but who was the buyer?

A 'well-connected consortium' or Chinese billionaire have both been suggested

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The Independent Online

A painting by Pablo Picasso setting a new world record for the most expensive work of art to sell at auction after reaching $179m (£115m) in New York has prompted frenzied speculation over the identity of the buyer.

Art commentators have suggested the buyer of Women of Algiers could be a “well-connected consortium” of New York art-world insiders looking to inflate art prices, a Chinese billionaire searching for an “adornment to a new Shanghai shopping centre” or the government of an oil-rich Gulf state looking to add to its national collection.

The 1955 painting sold for nearly $40m more than expected at Christie’s auction house as fierce online bidding from several anonymous telephone bidders drove the final price to $179,365,000.

The sale took just eleven minutes on Monday night and left the prestigious auction house with more than $20m in commission, but attention has already turned from the record-breaking figure to the identity of the mystery buyer, with the latest speculation that “well connected figures” in the American art world have “clubbed together” to buy the work and “drive up” the value of modern art.


“I think at this level in New York you are probably looking at a consortium of buyers who are pretty well connected to the New York art world, so either collectors who buy at the highest level or top-end dealers,” said Melanie Gerlis, a journalist at the Art Newspaper and author of Art as an investment? A survey of comparative assets. “These are people for whom frankly, there’s a vested interest in art going up to this level [of value].”

The beauty of a consortium sale, added Ms Gerlis, would be that it could attract “financial backing” from Wall Street and that “no one buyer would need to put up the full $179m”.

However Ms Gerlis admitted that she could “easily be wrong” and that the art world was still “scratching its head” over the identity of the byer with other sources suggesting a wealthy institutional collector from the Middle East may be responsible for the record sale price.

The record-breaking sales comes at a time when demand for masterpieces by impressionist, modern and contemporary painters is insatiable, as wealthy Chinese businessmen search for so called “trophy” works of art and several nations in the Middle East hunt for great works to display in vast new galleries.

The work is part of a 15-work series the Spanish artist created from 1954 to 1955, and Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Fund Group told the Independent depictions of “nude courtesans” may “be unacceptable” to institutional buyers in the Middle East where a string of new galleries are set to open in the next few years. Though the directors of the new Abu Dhabi Louvre recently told the Independent that “all” forms of art would be welcome at the new gallery in a sign that more risqué works would not necessarily be unwelcome.

Mr Hoffman also downplayed suggestions that the sought-after masterpiece had been purchased by a New York consortium.


He said: “This picture went on tour from New York to London to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai and I’m pretty sure two Asian buyers were bidding. Definitely some Chinese billionaires will have been interested and I wouldn’t be surprised if it went to Shanghai.

“A lot of these Chinese billionaires are building or under instruction to build major museums and galleries, so though Women of Algiers may disappear from public eye briefly, it could well return and be put on display at a grand new shopping centre or on the top floor of a major new development in Shanghai.”

Other more conventional figures linked to the purchase include Steve Wynn, the US business magnet and billionaire responsible for the massive expansion of the Las Vegas hotel and casino world in the 1990s. He made a name for himself among Picasso watchers in 2006 after he infamously put his elbow through a Picasso piece titled “Le Reve.” He went on to sell the work in 2013 for $155m to US billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who is now among those rumoured to have considered bidding for the latest Picasso work.

It has traditionally been seen as gauche to blatantly announce or advertise art at galleries, but the sale of recent work has seen that attitude loosen, as Jussi Pylkkanen, the global president of Christie’s, said the Picasso sale, which was part of a larger $705.8m auction, was “one of the greatest moments in auction history”.