The Women of Algiers: A Tale of Art Market Melodramma

BY Harper's Bazaar Art / Oct 11 2015 / 18:28 PM

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers recently became the world’s most expensive work of art to be sold at auction. However, its sky high price and mysterious buyer have been subject to much speculation, as has the painting’s provocative subject matter. Lucian Harris delves into the drama

The Women of Algiers: A Tale of Art Market Melodramma
The Women of Algiers: A Tale of Art Market Melodramma

There is nothing the media likes more than tales of unfathomably huge sums of money frivolously spent, and in recent years the international art market has delivered in spades.  Rarely, however, has the sale of a work of art generated more of a media furore as that of Picasso's Les Femmes d’Algers (The Women of Algers (Version O) which was bought by an anonymous telephone bidder at Christie's, New York, on 11 May for $179 million. Well in excess of the $140 million estimate, the sum made it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

The painting was the last and best of a series of 15 canvases made by Picasso between 1954 and 1955, the first year of the Algerian War of Independence, and lettered consecutively A to O. The works were based on French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix's 1834 Orientalist masterpiece Women of Algiers in Their apartment, which depicts four prostitutes smoking hashish from a hookah pipe. Picasso's women, represented in a Cubist style, are nude with their breasts and buttocks bared, recalling also the Spanish artist's famous Demoiselles d'Avignon.

The entire Women of Algiers series was originally bought by American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz in 1956 for $212,500. The next time Version O changed hands was at Christie's in 1997 when it was bought by a London-based Saudi businessman for $31.9 million. When this year it sold for the stratospheric price of $179 million it sent an immediate buzz around the world's media. Who was the mysterious telephone bidder who captured the prize after an eleven minute tussle with other determined high-rollers? Where would the painting end up? Why would anyone spend so much on any single canvas and was this particular painting worthy of such a price?

The Guardian published no less than four pieces on the sale in the space of a week. Art critic Jonathan Jones described it as a "palpably absurd price", pointing out that Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, which sold in 2010 for a then record of $106 million, was a far better work. Other reports focused on the huge amounts of money that collectors are prepared to pay for trophy works, and reflected on the likelihood that the work might not be seen again until it next comes onto the market.

The debate spiralled even further when New York television news station MyFoxNY ran a report on the sale accompanied by a censored image of the painting, blurring the breasts of the two nude women. New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz who had already published a piece entitled Say Good-bye Forever to Picasso’s Women of Algiers took to Twitter, fulminating: "How sexually sick are conservatives & Fox News? They blurred part of the Picasso painting #SickMinds." His reaction, and that of a number of other art critics who leapt on social media to voice similar condemnation, was met by a counter wave of anti-liberal invective, many pointing out that the station was not the cable channel Fox News but rather a local broadcast news affiliate owned by 21st Century Fox, which had probably acted out of fear of the Government appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

A week later on 20 May, the New York Post revealed the information that everyone had been waiting for, announcing that according to "art world sources" the painting had been bought by former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, a billionaire international property magnate widely known as "HBJ". The report added the opinion of another source that “The painting almost certainly will not go on public display in Qatar because of the nudity, even though it is a cubist work.”

This revelation triggered a new round of headlines, some incredulous. The International Business Times screamed:  "Qatari sheikh is the mystery buyer of £116m nude un-Islamic Picasso painting". If the painting was indeed headed to Qatar, would the Gulf state's strict religious code mean that it would never again be exhibited in public or published? How was this kind of censorship different from MyFoxNY? 

Days later a number of press sources appeared to have second thoughts about the story and retractions began to appear. The Telegraph was one of the first to publish a correction, perhaps mindful of a recent property dispute between HBJ and its owners the Barclay brothers. CNBC also reported that sources indicated that HBJ was definitely not the buyer, while Qatari newspaper The Peninsula stated that Christie's had issued a formal denial of the rumours.

In fact Christie's did not explicitly deny that HBJ was the buyer, stating only that it "does not disclose client information and does not comment on the identity of any buyers.” Indeed, the idea of a Qatari buyer for the Picasso was ostensibly believable considering the huge sums spent to bring art to the Gulf state in recent years. In February, the Qatar Museums Authority was reported to have privately bought Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo from Swiss collector Rudolf Staechelin for $300 million making it the most expensive work of art ever. Another monster purchase was Paul Cezanne's The Card Players acquired from Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos in 2011 for a reported $250 million.    

Still HBJ always seemed an unlikely candidate. Even if he had no plan to take the painting to Qatar, why would he buy a Picasso that was considered offensive by his own country's cultural and religious standards when he could easily afford to buy one which did not carry such baggage?

With a 50 percent rise in Chinese spending on the international art market in the last year and an increasing gravitation towards Western art, a Chinese buyer seems just as likely. This May at Sotheby's New York Wang Zhongjun, chairman of Huayi Brothers Media Group paid $29.9 million for Picasso’s Femme au Chignon dans un Fauteuil, once owned by Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn Sr., while the Dalian Wanda Group paid $20.41 million for Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, les Rosiers, and an as yet unknown Chinese buyer paid $66.3 million for Van Gogh's L'allée des Alyscamps.

The Women of Algiers(Version O) will not be the first or the last important painting by Picasso to light up the art market with a high profile sale only to vanish into the anonymous clutches of a mega-rich collector. The global nature of the international art market and the stratospheric value of trophy art as a super-luxury commodity have a unique potential to trigger the sort of web of cultural paradox and irony that will always capture popular imagination. With Picasso’s iconic stature as an artist, second to none, it will not be the last time the multi-million dollar sale of one of his paintings makes international headlines.