My Picasso

His tired eyes are kind. His straight, coarse hair sprouts straight up from his scalp as if from a long-ago flat top. High, strong cheekbones and a square jaw carry his craggy skin with elegance, giving his aging face a boyish look. His upper lip is thin and the expression around his mouth bemused, as though he=d just uttered something charming, even sexy. His name, “Monsieur Frederic Joliot-Curie,” is scribbled to the right of his face. In the bottom right hand corner it’s signed, “Picasso, 1959.”

The drawing, of the French physician who married Madame Curie’s daughter, Irene, was a gift from a dear friend who had kept it carefully sealed in a protective plastic sleeve for thirty years. I assumed it was a print, of course, and couldn’t wait to frame it and hang it in our living room. A friend of mine who happens to be an art consultant with a marvelous eye, took one look at it and got excited. She immediately called Mike, her favorite framer, who looks at the real thing every day, and arranged a meeting.

One week later: Mike the framer inspects the piece and has the same reaction Adrienne did. He thinks it’s an original. I am overwhelmed. Did my friend have any inkling she had given such a gift? I immediately call her to tell her of the excitement.

“You get it back if it’s real,” I promise, knowing I’ll have to fight her impulse to say, “No, baby, a gift’s a gift,” which is of course what she does say.

The framer, still inspecting it, sees several framing problems. First, the drawing was attached to olive-green matte board with double-sided 3M Transfer tape, a commonly used adhesive which had liquefied and turned as brown as burnt sugar, and literally seeped into the fiber of the paper. He doubted he could remove it without tearing the paper and ruining the value of the drawing. Too, the area around the face had darkened with dirt, age and light exposure; and a small, square sticker attached to the inside of the plastic sleeve (that probably bore the price) had left a white “stain” on the drawing; finally, a faint water spot could be discerned under M. Joliot-Curie’s throat. It was beyond the framer’s skill to fix: I’d have to consult a restorer.

One week later: I meet with Andrea Pitsch, a New York art conservator whose background in chemistry has everything to do with her skill in the restoration of prints, drawings and watercolors. She declares the drawing to be in “medium to good” condition, with “no progressively unhealthy situation here….the image is still very fresh.” The paper, she notes, is fine—with feathery, decled edges. Athough it isn’t her job to ascertain provenance or value, she too senses that this is an original. My explorer’s heart pounds. Even if I give it back, what a find! What a story! So: Andrea will remove the dark, hardened adhesive and as much dirt and other damage as she deems appropriate once she starts.

Two weeks later: I go to Andrea’s studio to see the new and improved Monsieur Joliot-Curie. His lively face looks cleaner and clearer; the whole work crisper. Miraculously, she has removed the adhesive and flattened the drawing’s top edges, where humidity had expanded and buckled the paper under the tape. What she was unable to do without affecting the paper’s integrity was to lighten it to match the shade of white once protected by the sticker.

I’m thrilled to witness Andrea’s alchemy; to see her tools and potions; to talk of the chemistry, restoration and resilience of fine paper. I’m in a new world. I’m a lover of art, read about it and visit galleries and follow it, but I’m hardly a collector. As I desultorily touch some of the eraser crumbs Andrea used to clean the portrait, she says, “I think Picasso probably used a felt tip for your drawing–a Magic Marker. See how flat and strong the stroke is?—see the dot where the artist’s hand paused and the ink bleeds out in a circle?”

Yes. M. Joliot-Curie’s eyebrows, eye sockets and lids were drawn in a fast, single squiggle of a pen that lands in the center of the eyes and rests just long enough for the ink to bleed out into pupil-sized dots.

Adrienne and I decide to matte it with black museum board, and to cover both the sticker area and the water mark. Andrea suggests several hinges be put at the top, so the drawing hangs from delicate “clothespins” made of Japanese tissue (also called mulberry paper). She is adamant about this. “Any framed work on paper should be secured into its museum board matte with mulberry paper hinges attached with wheat starch paste,” Andrea says,.“It doesn’t darken, is easy to remove, and has been used by the Japanese, for their scrolls, for centuries.”

“Why doesn’t everyone use wheat starch paste?” I ask.

“Because it takes time to cook up, it’s complicated to apply the hinges, and it’s moisture based, which can cause bulges in the paper unless the framer educates himself about how to use the material.” Also, wheat starch hinges make the matting process very expensive and, she adds wistfully, “people don’t understand the importance of museum-quality framing; of preserving your investment, whether it be financial or emotional.”

“They figure that they spent so much for the piece itself, why spend more on the frame?” I shoot back, edgy about my own mounting costs.

“They’re wrong,” Adrienne steps in. “Framing, even of prints, should be done right. Framing is everything.”

Adrienne and Andrea are huddled over the Picasso now, nodding their heads, and they stand up in unison. “Let’s just do one more thing: Let’s have it appraised,” Adrienne announces. “To assess it’s value. And to make sure it really is a Picasso.”

Make sure what? It might not be? “I thought the question was whether it was a print, not whether it was a fake!” I say, in a tone a little too much like pleading.

They look at me kindly. Welcome to the art world.

A week later: I now have an art consultant, a framer, an art conservator and an appraiser on my payroll.

A new edge of something less adoring has crept into my love affair with Frederic Joliot-Curie, something chillier, more mercenary. That little smile of yours, Monsieur? It’s losing its charm rapidement.

Mark Rosen, a renowned New York appraiser, looks under the microscope at M. Joliot-Curie’s squiggle-eyes, then at the signature. “It’s Picasso, all right,” he says. “But it’s a collotype reproduction.”

The sound of the word “reproduction” startles me as though it were a medical diagnosis. I try to hide my disappointment and inquire about collotype as if I cared. Collotype was a high-grade reproduction process used well into the sixties because of its capacity to reproduce a wide range of tonal gradations, particularly in drawings. “The process was less harsh and obviously reproductive than half-tone, but isn’t used anymore because it’s too expensive.” Its visual characteristic under magnification is a “bubbly” effect in the grey areas, a result of a process that uses gelatins and heatings and other procedures akin to an aquatint. He believes my portrait was done as a poster for a French exhibition in the late sixties.

Why on such good paper? I ask.

“The paper used for commercial reproductions was often better than the paper used in the original,” Mark says.

I take the leap. And its value?

“I’d say about $100.” Mark says.

I find myself privately disputing this. Even prints sold at our neighborhood street fairs cost more!

Adrienne is shocked. Andrea is horrified. Mike is aghast. Me? By this time I’ve gotten over it: The drama of uncovering the terrible truth has been too much fun. By now I care only that Monsieur Joliot-Curie not be impugned–no matter how many of him are out there on decled-edge paper.

Three weeks later: The work now hangs proudly in our living room, perfectly restored and elegantly, even a tad too glamorously framed, a decision we all agreed befit the final outcome (I’d have chosen something subtler had it been the real thing). The two-the magic marker lines of the drawing pop brilliantly against a black two-inch matte; and a silver-painted wood frame announces cheekily, “Voila! This is the Picasso!” I am back in love with this Frenchman and, after all we’ve been through, figure he deserves the glitz. I study him. His droll expression conveys something far more knowing, more personal, now. “C’est la vie, ma chere, ” he is saying directly to me. “I hope you’ll always remember our brush with Picasso.”


Art Consultant Adrienne Wincor: (212) 744-0697
Art Conservator Andrea Pitsch: (212) 594-9676
Art Appraiser Mark Rosen: (212) 535-5283
Mike Mitchell at Jonah Frameworks, Inc. (570) 833-3664