Picasso’s Unknown Jewelry

Some history-making jewelry goes up for sale this month – a cache of brooches, rings, and amulets that Pablo Picasso decorated for his lover Dora Maar, who died last summer. Maar’s estate goes on auction – along with 10 paintings and 50 drawings – at Maison de la Chime in Paris on Oct. 27-29. The jewelry goes on the block Oct. 28.

Though the portraits and most of the mementos were in Maar’s home for 60 years, few knew about the jewelry until it was discovered upon her death last year. Marc Blondeau, founding director of Sotheby’s Paris, helped catalog the items early this year in Maar’s apartment on Rue de Savoie in Paris, where she lived during her liaison with Picasso from 1936 to 1945.

“The jewelry was all over the place, under beds, in old shoeboxes,” says Blondeau. “She kept it very zealously as a memento to Picasso.”

Even experts in modernist jewelry were unaware until this find that Picasso made jewelry long before his commercial collaborations with jewelry designer François Hugo in the late 1950s and 1960s. Among the mementos were a brooch, four pendants, and a watch-ring, pre-made jewelry into which Picasso inserted miniature portraits, mostly of Maar. The jewelry is estimated at bargain prices, with the framed miniature portraits as low as 20,000 francs, or $3,300 – unheard of for an artist whose doodles on napkins have fetched tens of thousands. It seems safe to predict that the jewelry will bring far more than the estimates.

Two pieces expected to bring the highest prices are an oval medallion of marquisette gridwork that frames a drawing of Maar in pencil and colored pencil on cardboard, estimated at 250,000 francs, or $41,400, and a similar portrait in a yellow gold mount carved with enameled flowers. A chromed-metal ring, estimated at $3,140 to $6,300, features a portrait of Maar engraved on a brass plaque that lifts up to reveal a rectangular area with mechanical movements.

Terra cotta amulets. Six engravings were made from beach pebbles Picasso picked up and carved with a pocket knife during the summers the couple spent at Juan-les-Pins in the south of France, according to François Lorençeau, who helped catalog the collection. Most are of terra cotta, some with holes at the top so that Maar could wear them as amulets. They’re engraved with portraits, sometimes the “weeping woman” portraits Picasso made of Maar, or the head of a satyr. These are estimated between $1,000 and $8,300, Lorençeau says.

Of course, it’s the 10 paintings and 50 drawings in the estate that are getting most of the press attention. One, entitled “Crying Woman,” a study for “Guernica,” is estimated to bring $3.3 million. “Dora Maar Straight on with Green Nails” is expected to fetch $4.5 million.

In many respects, however, the jewelry is a more historically significant discovery. Few American jewelry specialists had heard about the find, and no one outside Paris had seen the pieces firsthand.

“Many artists – even some of great stature – made jewelry for loved ones, and their pieces were not particularly interesting as jewelry, just interesting historically,” says Toni Greenbaum, an art historian in New York specializing in modernist jewelry. “Just the fact that Picasso made jewelry and that he made it for Dora Maar is very exciting – regardless of what it is and whether it holds together stylistically and aesthetically. Any new discovery like this is a watershed event, there’s no question.”

It’s possible that collectors of the jewelry Picasso designed later on with Hugo will show interest in the Maar pieces, but Blondeau expects they will be bought as miniature art. “If a collector comes in with a wife and fails to get a painting, these are cheaper. It will be a way to compensate,” Blondeau says with a laugh.

Gloria Lieberman agrees. As director of fine jewelry at Skinners in Boston, Lieberman has sold much of the jewelry Picasso made with Hugo. “I don’t consider Picasso a jewelry-maker,” she says. “The body of his work with Hugo is small elements of his larger works, executed as jewelry by someone else. This jewelry sounds similar but more personal. I think it will interest an art collector looking for something personal.”

Most of the jewelry dates from 1936 to 1939, the first three years of the affair between Picasso and Maar. The only written reference to such jewelry that the Paris researchers could find appears in the biography Picasso and Dora, written by James Lord, an American who lived in Paris after World War II and became friends of both. According to Lord, the first piece of jewelry Picasso made for Maar was a compensation for a lost ring, a cabochon ruby set in gold and agate that she had persuaded him to trade a watercolor for.

A fateful toss of a ring. During a stroll along the Pont Neuf, the couple got into an argument. “He reproached her for having prevailed on him to give a work of art in exchange for a bauble,” Lord writes, “whereupon Dora took the ring from her finger and threw it into the Seine, silencing her lover. She later regretted having been so impulsive. A few months afterwards, the riverbed at that spot was being dredged, and for several days Dora haunted the spot, in hopes of recovering her ring. But it was lost for good. And through Picasso’s fault. So she kept at him until he created a ring of his own design for her. It was too precious and fragile to wear, which of course was his revenge.”

Obviously, Lord was unaware of the many other pieces of jewelry Picasso made for Maar. At one point she showed Lord a silver cigarette lighter engraved with her portrait, one of the double profiles typical of Picasso in the late 1930s. She called it “one of her most treasured possessions.” When he replied that it was beautiful, she said: “That’s not its only value.”

“Picasso had never been a great giver of gifts,” Lord writes. “Of paintings and drawings, yes, but those, though precious, were things that poured inevitably from his fingers and required no demonstrative consideration of the recipient.”

Lord describes a mahogany bookcase with glass doors that Maar called her “private museum.” In it were objects made by Picasso, including a bronze hand and bust of Maar, matchboxes with drawings on them, several large books (illustrated by Picasso), and a menagerie of animals and birds made of wood, paper, plaster, and metal – no doubt among the objects being auctioned this month.

“He doesn’t know how to stop making things,” she told Lord when he first saw this collection in 1953. “It must be terrible for him. Of course, it’s terrible for us as well.”

Though Picasso and Maar never married or lived together, their liaison inspired much of the artist’s work during his prolific war years. Maar was distraught when he left her for Françoise Gilot (who bore him two children, including Paloma, who became a jewelry designer herself) and spent some time in an insane asylum. Yet some of the jewelry found in her apartment proves they remained in contact long afterward.

A couple of pieces were presented by Picasso on one of Maar’s birthdays in the 1950s, containing portraits made of her in the ’30s.

A painter in her own right. Judging from Lord’s biography, Maar was a far cry from the “weeping woman” of the famous portraits, whom even current experts portray as pining away for decades in a shrine to her ex-lover. She had a reputation as a talented photographer among the Surrealists when she met Picasso and she continued to paint in her studio/apartment until her death. But it was her connection with Picasso that made her famous.

Despite the mass of Picassos in her possession when she died, Maar had sold several of his works over the years and was known as a shrewd negotiator. In the 1950s, Lord recalls her asking, “How much do you think they’re worth, the Picassos on my walls?”

“Half a million dollars,” he guessed. “Maybe more.”

“Much more,” she said, gesturing emphatically with the cigarette holder, scattering ash across the dashboard. “And I’ll tell you why. Because they’re mine. On the walls of a gallery maybe, they’re worth only half a million. On the walls of Picasso’s mistress they’re worth a premium, the premium of history.”

No one is arguing that point now. Five hundred people will crowd into a room in Paris this month, hoping to capture a little of that history. The art, mementos, and the surprising cache of jewelry are expected to bring $25 million – possibly much more.

For more information about the auction, contact Shields Communications at (212) 807-0737.