Picasso painting tipped for record sale unveiled in Hong Kong

Staff at Christie's pose beside Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') by painter Pablo Picasso during a preview in Hong Kong on April 1, 2015. The masterpiece went on show for the first time in Hong Kong on Wednesday ahead of an auction where it is tipped
Staff at Christie's pose beside Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') by painter Pablo Picasso during a preview in Hong Kong on April 1, 2015. The masterpiece went on show for the first time in Hong Kong on Wednesday ahead of an auction where it is tipped to smash the world record price for a painting. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (AFP) - Picasso masterpiece Les Femmes d'Alger went on show for the first time in Hong Kong on Wednesday ahead of an auction where it is tipped to smash the world record price for a painting.

The 1955 piece depicts women in a harem and is the final work in a 15-painting series which pays homage to the 19th century artist Delacroix, who Picasso admired.

It is billed to fetch an estimated US$140 million (S$192.4 million) when it goes on sale at Christie's in New York in May - but the auction house says the price could well go higher.

The current world record for any painting sold at auction is for Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for US$142 million in 2013, also at Christie's in New York.

"It's one of the great Picassos, period, and it's one of the last great Picassos that has been in private hands," Mr Derek Gillman, chairman of Christie's impressionist and modern art department, told AFP.

"In terms of Picasso's quality, it's at the absolutely top end. It's an extremely important piece," he said.

The painting was unveiled as part of a preview at Christie's in Hong Kong ahead of the New York sale and it will also go on show in London later this month.

The piece is inspired by a Delacroix painting of a similar name.

It is also a stylistic tribute to Picasso's friend and great rival, Henri Matisse, who died five weeks before Picasso began the series.

Mr Gillman predicted the painting would make a stellar sale.

"It's perfectly possible that it will break records," he said, adding that the growing number of wealthy private collectors around the world meant artworks were being "pushed to price levels we haven't seen before".

Christie's has not identified the collector selling the painting, but Mr Gillman said another private buyer would likely snap it up as museums would struggle to find the money.

"There aren't that many museums that can afford works at that level... Increasingly, works that might in the past have gone into museum collections have gone into private collections," he said.

Christie's had concealed the Picasso behind a red curtain at its headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday before unveiling it at the preview, a day before it goes on show to the public.

It is the highlight of the Looking Forward To The Past sale in New York on May 11, which will also feature works by other masters of the 20th Century, including Monet, Magritte and Rothko.