I had a papa who painted,” Maya Widmaier-Picasso once said when she exhibited some of her father’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors that she inherited after he died, in 1973. Her papa was Pablo Picasso. Her mother was Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso met one evening in 1927 when she was 17 and he was 45. Nine years before, Picasso had married Olga Khokhlova, one of Diaghilev’s dancers, with whom he had a son, Paulo, but the marriage was collapsing.
Maya’s mother later confided that Picasso had seen her leaving the Paris Métro and said, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you.” She had no idea who Picasso was, so he took her to a bookstore to show her a book about himself. Maya’s parents had split up when she was about eight, but she spent a great deal of time with her father.
Now 80 years old, she lives in Paris, has three children, and is one of Picasso’s five surviving heirs, all of whom have become multi-millionaires. The other heirs are Claude Picasso and his sister, Paloma, the children of Pablo and his mistress Françoise Gilot, the only woman who ever left him; and Marina and Bernard Picasso, the children of Paulo, who died in 1975. Since one of Picasso’s paintings, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) (Maya had watched him paint it), set a record last year for a work sold at auction ($179.4 million), the five Picasso heirs—who control the art world’s richest dynasty—are likely to become even richer.
They’re also likely to find themselves embroiled in the occasional public drama. In January, Maya emerged as the star, if you can call it that, of an unfolding court saga whose cast includes various super dealers at the highest levels of the art market—Larry Gagosian, Guy Bennett, and the now disbanded art-advisory firm of Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux. The dispute centers upon Picasso’s 1931 plaster bust of Marie-Thérèse Walter, a highlight of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Picasso Sculpture” exhibition. There are allegations that the piece, titled Bust of a Woman, was sold nearly simultaneously by Maya’s representatives to two buyers: once, in November 2014, to Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz al-Thani for $42 million, and then, a few months later, to Gagosian for $105.8 million. Courts in New York, Switzerland, and France are trying to unravel Bustgate and determine the sculpture’s rightful owner.
When Picasso died, 43 years ago at the age of 91, he left an astounding number of works—more than 45,000 in all. (“We’d have to rent the Empire State Building to house all the works,” Claude Picasso said when the inventory was completed.) There were 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks, and 3,222 ceramic works. There were vast numbers of illustrated books, copperplates, and tapestries. And then there were the two châteaux and three other homes. (Picasso lived in and worked in about 20 places from 1900 to 1973.) According to one person familiar with the estate, there was $4.5 million in cash and $1.3 million in gold. There were also stocks and bonds, the value of which was never made public. In 1980 the Picasso estate was appraised at $250 million, but experts have said the true value was actually in the billions.
Picasso did not leave a will. The division of his holdings took six years, with often bitter negotiations among the heirs. (There were seven then.) The settlement cost $30 million and produced what has been described as a saga worthy of Balzac. The family, writer Deborah Trustman noted at the time, “resembles one of Picasso’s Cubist constructions—wives, mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children (his youngest born 28 years after his oldest), and grandchildren—all strung on an axis like the backbone of a figure with unmatched parts.”
Today, the market for Picasso’s art is strong and getting stronger, with the emergence of collectors from China, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Russia. Most prefer the late work, from the 1950s and 1960s. The Russians have a thing for Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods. “If Picasso were alive today,” Marc Blondeau, a prominent Geneva dealer and former head of Sotheby’s France, told me, “he would be one of the 10 wealthiest men in the world.”
In 1996, Claude Picasso, who had been named legal administrator of Picasso’s estate by a French court, created the Picasso Administration, a Paris-based organization that manages the heirs’ jointly owned interests, controls the rights to Picasso reproductions and exhibitions, issues merchandising licenses for everything from dishes and fountain pens to ties and automobiles, and pursues forgeries, stolen works, and illegal use of Picasso’s name. During his lifetime, Picasso was the world’s
most prolific and most photographed artist. In 2016 he is the most reproduced, most widely exhibited, most faked, most stolen, and most pirated artist in the world, one of the hottest commodities in a white-hot art market. “Everyone wants a piece of Picasso,” said Eric Mourlot, a dealer whose father and grandfather printed hundreds of Picasso’s lithographs.
Or, as Claudia Andrieu, the Picasso Administration’s head of legal affairs, told me, “Picasso is everywhere.”
Consider: There were 34 Picasso exhibitions last year, in Bulgaria, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States. There are Picasso Museums in Paris, Barcelona, Antibes, and Málaga, where the artist was born. Companies in Paris and Lyon—with branches in many countries—hold licenses to sell Picasso carpets, trays, handbags, pillows, and other items. Citroën, the French car manufacturer, which acquired the rights to use Picasso’s name and signature for a reported $20 million, says it has sold nearly 3.5 million Picasso cars in more than 30 countries since 1999. Citroën pays royalties annually to the Picasso Administration, which retained the right, as it does with all licenses, to control the advertising campaigns. In 2012, Montblanc received a license to produce limited-edition Picasso fountain pens engraved with comments and sketches from a 1936 Picasso painting, Portrait de Jeune Fille (Portrait of a Young Girl). One pen, in an edition of 39, was partly solid gold with a cut diamond and sold for $54,500. Another, in an edition of 91, was partly solid gold and sold for $33,500. (One of them recently showed up on eBay for $80,000.) Another major source of income for the Administration is the Droit de Suite, a royalty on auction and gallery sales of works by artists who are still living or have been dead less than 70 years. Although the Administration does not disclose its annual revenues, the figure, according to some estimates, is around $8 million.
Then there’s the Picasso black market, which the Picasso Administration tries to keep up with, often in vain. There are possibly hundreds of illegal brands called “Picasso” around the world, selling everything from fishing hooks and pizza to coffee mugs, shoes, T-shirts, inflatable dolls, and mobile homes, and more seem to pop up every day. For example, the Lane Bryant women’s clothing chain, until recently, offered an unlicensed Picasso bra, with matching “boyshort” pantie, but they have since sold out. “We are pursuing the matter,” said Theodore Feder, president of the Artists Rights Society, which represents the Administration in the United States. Some years ago, a Spanish company illegally attached Picasso’s name to products such as coffee, tea, ice cream, pasta, rice, and toothpaste. It is no longer in business. But a company in Taiwan that sells unauthorized Picasso scarves, watches, socks, and umbrellas still is. “From a legal standpoint,” Andrieu said, “it is difficult in many countries to oppose an unauthorized Picasso trademark registration.”
Movies have been using Picasso reproductions for years. Most are conscientious about getting rights, but there have been exceptions. When Titanic was being filmed, in 1996, James Cameron wanted to show a reproduction of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in a scene in which Kate Winslet is seen unpacking it. When the ship goes down, the painting is shown sinking below the waves. The Picasso Administration decided that it could not authorize the inclusion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the film “because the painting has been on display at the Museum of Modern Art for well over 60 years and certainly did not go down with the ship when the Titanic sank,” said Feder, who, in addition to his work with the Artists Rights Society, is an art historian who has taught at Columbia University and Queens College. “When I viewed the film several weeks after its opening, I was surprised to discover that the scene depicting the submersion of Les Demoiselles was still in it. We negotiated a fee after the fact, which, as one could imagine, included a substantial penalty.”
For all its efforts, though, the Administration, which now employs a staff of eight people, gets mixed reviews in the art world. Critics complain that responses to authentication requests are slow, that neither Claude Picasso nor the other heirs are scholars, and that they have not created an advisory committee or made any plans to publish a catalogue raisonné. “It’s a pity that one of the world’s greatest artists doesn’t have a team of experts doing this research,” one dealer told me. Claude, for his part, points out that he has been immersed in Picasso since birth. “The heirs have decided not to publish for the time being a catalogue raisonné as objects surface still which were not catalogued,” he wrote in an e-mail. Regarding authentication, he said, “the requests are very often not professionally formulated. On the average 900 requests are filed yearly. Verifications of the information provided sometimes can be labor-intensive. Artworks need often to be examined in the flesh.”
There have also been complaints about the Administration’s licensing policy. When the Citroën deal was announced, in 1998, Jean Clair, then the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, was outraged, writing in Libération that Picasso “has become a brand that can be applied at will to anything produced by contemporary technology.” The late photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a great friend of the artist’s, was also incensed about the car deal. He wrote to Claude and accused him of having “betrayed” Picasso.
That sense of betrayal has also been felt inside the family. “I cannot tolerate that the name of my grandfather … be used to sell something as banal as a car,” Marina Picasso said at the time. “He was a genius who is now being exploited outrageously.” (Marina sold reproduction rights to 1,000 works from her inheritance and agreed to a merchandising plan that sold scarves, ties, dinnerware, and other products to support charity.)
The car naming was the idea of Olivier Widmaier Picasso, Maya’s son, who has made documentaries about his grandfather and has advised the Administration on licensing matters. Twenty-five years ago, the major auction houses usually consulted only Maya, a former Christie’s official told me. “Then it became confusing,” he said. “Claude began to authenticate, and at one time authentication required two signatures. We shuddered at the idea that opinions would differ.” Opinions did differ. On a few occasions, one would say a work was original and the other would declare it a forgery.