Picasso erotic dream breaks art record

The sale of the Ganz collection in New York has marked a return to the cricket-score art prices of the late 1980s. Geraldine Norman saw the hype translated into spectacular prices

Picasso's portrait of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter titled The Dream was sold at Christie's in New York on Monday night for $48.4m (pounds 28.5m), the highest price paid for a Picasso since the market crash in 1990 and the second highest ever; another painting took $51m at the height of the boom. Prices went crazy at the heavily publicised sale of 58 paintings from the modern art collection of Victor and Sally Ganz.

The Dream is one of a series of eight portraits Picasso made of Marie- Therese in the early 1930s - last on the market was The Mirror which made only $20m in 1995. It is unquestionably an erotic dream. Maria-Therese sleeps in a chair, her softly smiling head tilted back. And Picasso has split her face in two, making the upper half echo the shape of a penis.

The winning bid on the painting was placed, very anonymously, by the sales clerk standing beside the auctioneer - this is the beat trick for a bidder who wants to conceal his or her identity at auction.

The second highest price of the evening - and third highest for a Picasso - was the $31m paid by London dealer Libby Howie for one of his 1932 series of eight paintings titled Femmes d'Alger - it had been expected to make between $10m and $12m. Howie is believed to act as agent for a Middle Eastern potentate. This complex and highly coloured image of Algerian women would be just the ticket for that market.

New York art lovers were celebrating their own when they bid the 58 lots from the Ganz collection to $207m at Christie's, almost twice as much as had previously been realised by a single session sale from a private collection. Victor and Sally were modest New Yorkers who bought art for love not for investment. He had a costume jewellery business and she had four children and a passionate amateur interest in Russian literature.

Victor died in 1987 and Sally, earlier this year, so the four children and the US tax man will split the proceeds. Virtually the whole Ganz fortune was tied up in art, so the tax man will take about $120m, leaving the children some $20m each. Not bad, considering their parents' total investment in art was less than $2m. Kate Ganz, now a London art dealer, said the family was "overwhelmed - over the moon".

For 20 years, from 1941 to 1961, Victor and Sally bought only Picasso. Then they branched out into contemporary Americans, most notably Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.

America has gone crazy over the sale. A queue of people waiting to get into the exhibition ran right round the block over the weekend - despite torrential rain. Some 25,000 people managed to see the pictures. For the first time, Christie's turned four galleries into sale rooms and crammed in 2,000 people; with 70 telephone bidders.

The hype was translated into spectacular prices, particularly on the less expensive pieces. Lot 3 set the tone for the evening, a rectangle of paper, roughly 2ft by 3ft, inked a uniform black by Brice Marden which sold for $420,500 against an estimate of $120,000-$160,000. The fast Jasper Johns, Corpse and Mirror, of 1974, secured $8,362,500 against an estimate of $3.5m-$4.5m. The top price for Robert Rauschenberg was $6,382,500, for Red Interior of 1954-55, a combine painting using velvet, newsprint and rocks.

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