Sex, death and Greek myths: Picasso’s Vollard Suite under the hammer

The final sale of Henri M Petiet’s collection of prints is auctioned at Paris’s Opéra Comique

Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman, 1933, by Pablo Picasso, estimate €1.2m
Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman, 1933, by Pablo Picasso, estimate €1.2m | Image: © Succession Picasso 2017

They say that the best is left till last, and that might well be the case at an upcoming auction in Paris on November 25-26. Henri M Petiet, one of the most important French art dealers of the last century, acquired an inventory of prints so vast that its sale has amounted to a staggering 50 auctions, the final of which counts over 500 lots – including a complete signed set of Picasso’s Vollard Suite.

Vollard Suite by Pablo Picasso, comprising 100 signed prints, estimate €1.5m-€2m
Vollard Suite by Pablo Picasso, comprising 100 signed prints, estimate €1.5m-€2m | Image: © Ader

Some of the greatest names in modern art will feature in the sale, including Bonnard, Braque, Corot, Daumier, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Pissarro, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. But the biggest draw will indeed be the Vollard Suite, created between 1930 and 1937 and estimated at €1.5m-€2m. Petiet acquired the prints after art dealer Ambroise Vollard was killed in a car crash in July 1939, and while most were unsigned, after long negotiations with the artist, Picasso finally gave them his signature.

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The complete set is 100 works, and features many of Picasso’s favourite themes, including bullfighting, the Minotaur and his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Originally, over 300 sets had been made, but they were broken up and the prints sold separately; the National Gallery of Australia and the British Museum both own complete sets ­– with the latter’s then director Neil MacGregor saying it had been “one of the museum’s most important acquisitions in the past 50 years”.

Small Black Woodcut, 1906, by Henri Matisse, estimate €8,500
Small Black Woodcut, 1906, by Henri Matisse, estimate €8,500 | Image: © Succession H Matisse

The set is “a passionate display of Picasso’s power and genius,” says Hélène Bonafous-Murat, print expert and member of the Compagnie Nationale des Experts. “The prints celebrate his passion for his young lover Marie-Thérèse and offer impressive images of love, tenderness – but also rough sex.”

The Jockey, 1899, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, estimate €25,000
The Jockey, 1899, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, estimate €25,000 | Image: © Ader

Picasso is in good company. Elsewhere in the sale there is a charming small black woodcut by Matisse depicting a naked woman perched on a chair, dating from 1906 and estimated at €8,500. The Jockey, an 1899 lithograph of a man on a racehorse by Toulouse-Lautrec, one of 100 impressions, is estimated at €25,000. There is also Child with Lamp from around 1897, a lithograph by Bonnard estimated at €8,000, showing a wide-eyed child peeping over a brown tabletop at a green light; Cassatt’s Mother Rose Nursing her Child from around 1900, a pastel-coloured counterproof estimated at €18,000, and Dufy’s The Great Bather from around 1928, a rare trial proof with different colours, annotated and signed. It is estimated at €3,000.

The Great Bather, c1928, by Raoul Dufy, estimate £3,000
The Great Bather, c1928, by Raoul Dufy, estimate £3,000 | Image: © Ader

And for anyone who wishes to sample a flavour of the auctions of yesteryear, the sale, held by Ader Nordmann at the Opéra Comique, will have a sense of drama of its own, as there will be no telephone or internet bidding and buyers will have to be there in person. “For the 50th and final Henri M Petiet sale, I decided to turn the occasion into ‘a show’, an event to be remembered,” says David Nordmann.

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