Picture: STEPHAN WELZ & CO
Picture: STEPHAN WELZ & CO

A RISQUÉ crayon drawing by revolutionary artist Pablo Picasso is to go on auction in Cape Town on June 7, with an estimated value of R3m-R3.5m. It is the first Picasso sketch to go on auction in SA.

Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') fetched the highest price ever paid for an artwork — $179.4m — at a Christie's auction in 2015, South African art auctioneers Stephan Welz & Co said on Tuesday after unveiling the drawing in Cape Town.

"Given the favourable rand and US dollar exchange rate, this could prove a massive draw card to both local and international bidders," said auctioneer Anton Welz in a statement.

Titled Au Cirque (At the Circus), the coloured crayon sketch is dated January 31 1954 and was last sold by auctioneers Sothebys in New York in 2006 when it fetched $240,000. The seller is a South African who lives in Cape Town and who bought the sketch on that auction.

Picasso, who died in 1973, is regarded as one of the most revolutionary and influential artists of the 20th century. He is also one of the most loved, and is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also invented constructed sculpture, co-invented collage, and helped develop and explore a wide variety of other styles.

Welz said in 2014 Sotheby’s White-Glove Sale of the private collection of legendary art dealer Jan Krugier, Picasso’s Composition au Minotaure sold for £10,386,500 ($16,943,497) with an estimate of £1.8-£2.5m. This was a record price for a work on paper.

The drawing to be auctioned in SA is not Cubist. It is part of a series of sketches Picasso made of activities at the circus in the 1950s, said Welz. The drawing is one of several with the same title.

Picasso, born in Spain in 1881, spent most of his adult life in France. Auction sales for his work in 2015 totalled $652.9m and in 2014, Picasso sales were second only to those of Andy Warhol — $449m in a $16.1bn international market, according to Artnet, the New York-based art researcher.

The drawing, depicting a topless woman, two men and a horse, featured recurring themes in Picasso’s circus sketches, said Welz. At first glance it appeared "very naive", but it worked on several planes, perspective and depth. "It’s initially simple, but in reality not that simple," Welz told BDLive.

Welz said the sketch was also auctioned in 1996. It was originally owned by the Gallerie Leiris Louise in Paris, then by the Saidenberg Gallery in New York before being bought by art collector Bessie Horowitz in New York in 1990 for $154,000.

"The painting’s subject embodies the courtly performers of the Renaissance, resurrected by Picasso for a 20th century audience," Stephan Welz & Co said in a statement. "Picasso’s inspiration for itinerant figures and other masculine characters in his oeuvre can be traced to his Spanish childhood and his familiarity with Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Circus performers also signified for him the golden age of painting and allowed him to escape the limitations of contemporary subject matter."

Stephan Welz & Co is expecting to release the auction catalogue for the June 7 sale next week, and will accept online bids for the Picasso. "In my experience people would rather book a phone call or an online bid than make an absentee bid (a bid that gives the auctioneers a price ceiling they use to bid on a collector’s behalf)," Welz said.

Online bids can be made via www.stephanwelzandco.co.za, saleroom.com and invaluable.com, and catalogues will be available from both the Cape Town and Johannesburg offices as well as the Stephan Welz & Co website.

• Pre-auction viewing is open to the public in Johannesburg at Stephan Welz & Co Studio in Nelson Mandela Square, from May 26 to May 28 (10am–5pm). Au Cirque will then be open to the public for viewing in Cape Town at The Great Cellar, Alphen Estate, Alphen Drive, Constantia from June 1 to June 5 (10am–5pm).

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