Picasso ceramics – a booming market

[05 May 2015]


Pablo PICASSO’s ceramics represent one of his densest markets. Long neglected in favor of paintings, drawings and even prints, nowadays, it has emerged as a particularly interesting market segment. Picasso’s ceramic work is a strange combination of painting, sculpture and object reinterpretation. The segment is particularly attractive if we bear in mind that a large number of his ceramic creations can still be acquired for under $3,000 (like his lithographs).

Picasso and ceramics

Picasso first tried his hand at ceramics at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris on July 26, 1946 after meeting its owners George and Suzanne Ramié. Fascinated by the malleability of clay, the artist began an intense exploration of the material, creating some 2,000 pieces between mid-1947 and autumn 1948. Over the following two decades (until 1971), his pace of production was much more moderate, but he ultimately left behind some 4,000 ceramic pieces. Offered at much more accessible prices, Picasso wanted his works to integrate everyday life and the majority are functional pieces. The contract established with the Madoura pottery included the creation of a number of series and some 633 models were produced in limited editions of 25 to 500 copies. Plates, wine jugs, vases … Picasso toyed with all kinds of shapes and styles and used a variety of tools and techniques, in a very “no limits” spirit. He spent a lot of time decorating plates and dishes with his favorite themes including bullfighting, women and birds. He also took ceramics into new territory and created highly personal shapes, sculptures in fact, emancipated from any practical logic.

Demand and rising prices

Some of Picasso’s unique sculptural ceramic pieces had reached fairly high prices by the end of the 90s. In 1989 a Chouette en colère (1953, terracotta, measuring 30 cm) fetched a surprising $239,000 at Sotheby’s New York. Indeed several results over $100,000 were recorded in the 90s, however over the last 10 years, prices have been particularly dynamic, including for pieces produced in several copies. In fact, Picasso’s ceramics have come to be regarded as a specific market niche, a niche that Christie’s dedicates specialized sales to each year, and with an impressive success rate. One such sale, Picasso Ceramics: The Madoura Collection, in June 2012 (no less than 543 lots offered, including a number of lithographs, photographs, etc.) quadrupled its estimate with a final total of $12.58 million (including fees) and a 100% sold rate! The following year, Christie’s sold the famous glazed vase Grand vase aux femmes voilées for over $1.1 million including fees (June 25, 2012 in London). In June 2013, another copy of Grand vase aux femmes voilées fetched $1.5 million including fees, adding $400,000 to the work’s value in just one year … Created in 1950 in Vallauris, Grand vase was produced in a limited edition of 25 and is considered one of Picasso’s most outstanding achievements. It has held the artist’s ceramics auction record for the last two years. Artprice has observed a distinct acceleration of the high-end art market in recent months. Indeed, more than half of the total number of results above $500,000 for Picasso ceramics date from 2014 to 2015 (5 out of 9 results recorded up to 1 May 2015).

Affordable works at less than $3,000

Nevertheless, a large segment of Picasso’s ceramics market changes hands for prices under $3,000. His bowls, often referred to as ashtrays, decorated with bullfighting scenes (usually picador and bull), owls and birds, are rapidly growing in value. A few years ago, they sold for under $1,000. Around 2003, the estimates for these small pieces – each edition of which is limited to 500 copies – had to be revised because results were doubling, sometimes tripling, the forecasts. Today some ashtrays fetch over $3,000. The best results for these works come from Hong Kong, which is not so surprising considering the central importance of ceramics in Asian art. “The fire art” garners as much respect in Asia as the graphic arts. Moreover, the ease with which Picasso captured the essence of a bird in just a couple of simple brush strokes is very much in line with Chinese traditional drawing. In 2013, the Hong Kong operator, Est-Ouest Auctions Co., sold an “ashtray” decorated with a bird on a branch for more than $16,000, blithely multiplying its estimate by a factor of over ten (May 26, 2013). That level of enthusiasm is undeniably linked to the place of sale, but also to the rarity of that type of work in Asia. In fact, Picasso ceramics were first introduced to the Hong Kong auction market in 2014. In the West, a bird on a branch “ashtray” is still worth between $1,500 and $3,000 on average.