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Book of sketches possibly by Picasso sells for $112,500

Auctioneer Tim Murphy closes off bidding on a book of sketches thought to be the work of Pablo Picasso. (Jim Camden)
Auctioneer Tim Murphy closes off bidding on a book of sketches thought to be the work of Pablo Picasso. (Jim Camden)

KENMORE, Wash. – A sketchbook that might contain more than two dozen works of Pablo Picasso – or not – sold for $112,500 at an auction of abandoned items turned over to the state.

The inside cover of the book carries the artist’s name and a 1912 date. But auctioneer Tim Murphy warned the crowd of about 100 in the James G. Murphy Auction Co. facility in this Seattle suburb that they’d be taking their chances by bidding on the book and its 27 pen, charcoal or watercolor renderings.

The sketchbook was among hundreds of items up for auction after being turned over to the state Department of Revenue from safe deposit boxes whose owners hadn’t paid rent to the banks for at least three years. The department spent nearly five years trying to track down the owner or the owner’s heirs, with no luck.

“It is what it is. No guarantees, no warranties,” said Murphy, who added he really didn’t know where to start the bidding on the sketchbook, so he began at $10,000.

At least two people, a Seattle art collector and a Midwest resident bidding over the Internet, were convinced the book was authentic. When bidding nearly stalled at about $20,000, they dueled first at $1,000 a turn, and later at $2,500.

Several times it looked as if one or the other would give up, as Murphy would look to the bidder on the top row of the facility’s bleacher seats or the employee monitoring a computer screen and say “Last call.”

And up the offers went, to $100,000 then $110,000 and finally to $112,500, where the local bidder shook his head “No” to $115,000, and Murphy declared the sketchbook sold.

The local collector, who declined to give his name, said he has no doubt the sketches are the work of Picasso. He jumped into the bidding around $15,000 because he was surprised it was going so cheaply. Sold individually, some of the sketches could sell for $100,000 or more if they are real and the book is authenticated, he said.

“If it had gone to $100,000 or $200,000 right away, I wouldn’t have bothered,” he said.

It might also have sold for seven figures at one of the large New York auction houses frequented by art collectors, he said. “I’m surprised there weren’t more collectors or interested people here.”

If he’s right, the winning bidder got a good deal, the Seattle collector said. Asked why he stopped when he did, the collector said that was all he was willing to spend because much of his money is tied up in other things: “I’m invested in real estate, not little pieces of paper.”

The winning bidder told auction employees he wished to be identified only as a Midwest resident and otherwise remain anonymous “at this time,” Ray Gombiski, the company’s advertising coordinator, said.

Every few years the state Revenue Department auctions off unclaimed items found in safe deposit boxes that renters have stopped paying on. Like most such auctions, this year’s had a wide variety of coins, jewelry and watches squirreled away and forgotten in the locked boxes.

But the sketchbook was something unusual for the department. The book 27 depictions of nudes and landscapes carries Picasso’s signature – or a pretty good representation of it – on the inside cover. One of the landscapes is also signed.

The sketchbook appears to be in line with what Picasso was sketching in that period, Gombiski said. It was meticulously stored, with a sheet of tissue paper between each page.

But the auction house did not have the six months to a year it could take to authenticate the artworks, he said. The Revenue Department was told the process might cost as much as $10,000, which would come out of its budget if the sketches weren’t Picassos.

“It’s just one of those balancing acts we have to do. We decided let’s let the market determine the value,” department spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said.

The auction house allowed prospective bidders or their art experts to view the sketches but had no idea what it would bring until the bidding stopped.

The department maintains a website where people can check for any unclaimed items the state is holding in their name. State law doesn’t allow it to reveal the person who rented the box with the sketchbook, but Schmanke said at one point the department located someone who claimed to be the legal owner. When it came time to present proof, however, that person didn’t show up and the state hasn’t been able to find him.

The money raised for all items in the auction must be held in trust by the state until claimed by the owner or an heir.

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