The market heats up for Picasso’s ceramics

The rise of pottery as an artistic discipline and the artist’s large body of earthen works, with pieces priced at as little as $500 and as much as $3 million, have prompted the sale of almost all of the pottery created by the famous painter

Miguel Ángel García Vega
Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in 1948
Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in Madoura’s ceramics workshop in 1948, in Vallauris, France.REPORTERS ASSOCIES (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

When Picasso learned to bake and shape the earth, everything changed. He transformed a craft — pottery — into an art. In 2023, works by the artist in the category of “decorative arts” sold for a total of $16,983,850 (prior to November 11, and according to the art information platform MutualArt.com). Up for auction were 1,468 ceramic pieces, of which 1,098, or 75% of the total, were sold. On October 30, the global auction house Christie’s put 89 pieces on the market. All of them sold, bringing in just over $3 million. Christie’s top competitor, Sotheby’s, also proved that the fire of genius is as profitable as ever. The seller held two auctions of ceramics, one in April, in London, and another in September, in New York. A total of 176 works were sold, or 96% of the total available. Collectors from 35 countries bid on the pieces. There were some surprises, too: Visage aux yeux rieurs (Face with laughing eyes, in English), a glazed ceramic pitcher, fetched a staggering 165,100 pounds sterling (more than $210,000), setting a world record for that piece of white fired clay. To some, it may sound like a “reasonable” amount when talking about a Picasso. But it is a ceramic jug that was reproduced 350 times, with a starting price set at 40,000 pounds.

Many things have happened to bring us to this point. Some during the master’s lifetime, others in the years after his death. There is no catalogue raisonné listing all of Picasso’s ceramic works. It is estimated that there are some 3,500 unique pieces, but there are at least 1,000 that remain missing and have never been exhibited. “Moreover, there has been a radical change in the historiography,” says Salvador Haro, professor of painting at the University of Málaga and one of the world’s leading experts on ceramic art. “They are no longer just ‘knick-knacks from the artist’s latter years.’ Researchers have become interested in his creations and several exhibitions have added significant value to his ceramics.” For Picasso, Haro says, 1998 was an essential year. “The Metropolitan in New York and the Royal Academy of Arts in London both programmed exhibitions, and for the first time, there was a good catalog, and it completely changed the paradigm,” he says. The growing interest has also been influenced by the unconscious calculations driving today’s collector: “For just 500 euros I can own something similar to a sculpture.”

‘Visage aux yeux rieurs’ (Face with laughing eyes), a ceramic pitcher by Picasso that recently sold at Sotheby’s for more than $210,000.
‘Visage aux yeux rieurs’ (Face with laughing eyes), a ceramic pitcher by Picasso that recently sold at Sotheby’s for more than $210,000.SOTHEBY'S

“Before Picasso,” writes Haro, “other painters had dabbled in the ceramic arts: Gauguin, Matisse, Rouault, Marquet, Dufy, Fontana, Kandinsky. However, their performances in this medium, often marginal to their main endeavors, were not taken very seriously by critics.” But the demiurge Picasso had reinvented 20th century artistic expression, and pottery would be no exception.

It had been a year since the signing of the armistice that ended the Second World War. At the time, Picasso was spending the summer with Françoise Gilot in Golfe-Juan, on the French Riviera. One afternoon, at the end of July, they went to see an exhibition of handicraft products on display near Vallauris, an epicenter of pottery since Roman times that the artist had already visited in 1936 with Dora Maar and the poet Paul Éluard. He was fascinated, in those days, watching the potters form their clay.

On the Côte d’Azur, Picasso met the Ramiés, a husband and wife who had reopened an old pottery factory called Madoura. That same afternoon, he was already at the potter’s wheel, creating clay figures, and was immediately drawn to the artform. He would spend that winter drawing sketches for future ceramic pieces. He worked with Jules Agard, an expert lathe operator, and the Ramié family provided him with an infinite supply of materials. He spent most of 1947 in Madoura. A fire had sparked inside him that he fed relentlessly. Every evening, Salvador Haro recalls, the artist would come from Golfe-Juan — where he had rented a summer house from the engraver Louis Fort, until moving in the spring of 1948 to a new residence in Vallauris, in the villa La Galloise — together with Gilot and their newborn son Claude. They lived there until 1954. During those years, Picasso never stopped working with clay.

Claude Picasso (right) and Bernard Ruiz Picasso, son and grandson of Pablo Picasso, at the artist’s ceramics exhibit at the Royal Academy in London, in September 1998.
Claude Picasso (right) and Bernard Ruiz Picasso, son and grandson of Pablo Picasso, at the artist’s ceramics exhibit at the Royal Academy in London, in September 1998. Rebecca Naden - PA Images (PA Images via Getty Images)

His idea, he explained to George Remié, the owner of the workshop, was to make the pieces available to everyone by creating numerous reproductions, just as he had done with engravings since 1946. The works were thus reproduced in series starting in 1950, though the first models were originals created during 1947. Before this high production phase, in 1948, Picasso exhibited his ceramic works at the Maison de la Pensée Française in Paris. Critics were divided. But it was Picasso, and it had an unexpected effect. The pottery industry came back to life after World War II. In Vallauris there were 400 to 500 unemployed pottery workers, but “after he showed his exhibition in the French capital [in 1948], to the crowds that came to see it, you could have dug up the dead potters and found them work,” explained Georges Tabaraud, editor of Le Patriote, a French communist newspaper and Picasso’s friend. Lucio Fontana, Paul René Gauguin (Paul Gauguin’s nephew), the painter Edouard Pignon and Joan Miró all passed through the doors of the workshop. Marc Chagall also spent time there, something that annoyed Picasso. He represented the avant-garde; Chagall, on the other hand, was, in his opinion, reactionary and very distant politically from Picasso’s leftist ideas and affinity with Russia.

Despite his temperament, Picasso elevated pottery above the level of mere tradition, opening a new path for other creators. At the same time, he invented a market. The three all-time highest selling “decorative” Picasso pieces (according to MutualArt.com) were 23 silver bowls, which sold for 2,657,000 euros in 2014. These are followed by two unique clay owl sculptures: Le hibou gris, from 1953, which sold for $2,412,500 in 2018, and Le hibou (rouge et blanc), which sold for $2,407,500 in 2016. Works measuring no more than a foot in length or width. But there are more affordable pieces too, starting at around $500 to $700. Picasso was a genius, and he knew how to make the earth and money burn.

Pablo Picasso examines some of his ceramic pieces in the Vallauris workshop in April 1949.
Pablo Picasso examines some of his ceramic pieces in the Vallauris workshop in April 1949. - (AFP via Getty Images)

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