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Picasso’s portrait of lover sells for $35M, auction totals $109M

Updated October 24, 2021 - 8:58 am

His voice rises with the price.

Oliver Barker leans into the crowd from behind a white podium, arms shooting out, looking as if he’s conducting an orchestra, numbered paddles and champagne glasses in place of violins and cellos.

“One million, one hundred thousand — give me two, please,” the nattily suited auctioneer asks from the Monet Ballroom at the Bellagio, seeking bids for Pablo Picasso’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” a brightly hued ceramic work from the Spanish master artist.

Four people on each side of Barker work the phones, taking bids as well, seated beneath the works up for sale.

But the action is here in the room, where a man in a gray dress shirt, seated in the back, talking with a partner on a cellphone, is battling hard for the piece with another party nearby.

The price escalates to $1.7 million.

You could cut the tension in the room with a knife — a knife with a gilded blade, of course, considering the surroundings.

“It’s getting pretty dramatic,” Barker observes.

The clock ticks.

“We can’t bear the suspense any longer,” Barker says. “Last chance,” he tells the guy in back, who doesn’t match what turns out to be the final bid.

Then the hammer comes down.

Sold for $1.75 million.

Four lots in, the largest and most significant fine art auction to ever take place in Las Vegas is heating up.

For the first time, renowned art brokerage firm Sotheby’s hosted a marquee evening sale in North America outside its New York City auction venue on Saturday, overseeing the sale of 11 Picasso pieces including paintings, works on paper and ceramics spanning from 1917 to 1969.

And it happened in Vegas, a town known for lavish spending — if not necessarily on classic works of Cubism.

Culled from MGM Resorts’ fine art collection, the sale coincided with Picasso’s 140th birthday on Monday.

In 45 suspense-filled minutes, $109 million worth of art was sold in front of a well-heeled crowd of around 150, some of them seated in gold-framed chairs, others standing next to plush black curtains.

The evening began with another ceramic work, “La Fenêtre de l’atelier La Californie,” which fetched $170,000 to a man in the room.

But soon paintings were going for millions, like the still life “Nature morte au panier de fruits et aux fleurs,” which went for $14.25 million.

The centerpiece of the auction, though, was “Femme au béret rouge-orange” one of Picasso’s signature portraits of his muse and lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met in Paris in 1927 when she was but 17. She’d go on to inspire a number of Picasso’s works, his fervor for both her and his art intermingling in a double helix of passion and creativity.

It was the last item up for sale.

Hands were clinched.

Bidding opened at $14 million.

In three seconds, the price jumps as many millions.

“Twenty-seven million dollars — say eight,” Barker implores, a bidding war taking place between buyers by phone.

The price stalls at $31 million — momentarily.

“Thirty-five million dollars on my left hand side,” Barker announces. “Last chance.”

There would be no counteroffer from the right side.

Sold.

The crowd exhales in unison, cheering and clapping the sale.

No one seems disappointed to have come up short on any bids.

Besides, on Sunday, there’s yet another auction: Sotheby’s Icons of Excellence & Haute Luxury at Aria, which will feature, among other items, what is believed to be the earliest known Michael Jordan regular season game worn Nikes.

Really, how can you be bummed today when you can vie for MJ’s sneakers?

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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