A man in a grey suit and Salvatore Ferragamo tie has been talk of this week’s Impressionist and Modern art sales in London. Quietly bidding with a twitch of the spectacles, Harry Smith of the London-based advisors Gurr Johns was determined to take home every Pablo Picasso going in the evening auctions, first at Christie’s then Sotheby’s. But who was he buying for?

After buying eight Picasso works at Christie’s on Tuesday night, for between £320,000 and £13.7m for the sale’s top lot, Mousquetaire et nu Assis (1967), Smith was back for more at Sotheby’s last night. There he bought four Picasso works, including the top lot of the week—Picasso’s zinging 1937 portrait, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter). Smith had been bidding in the room against an Asian buyer on the line with Patti Wong, the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. At £41.2m he appeared to stop, but in fact started bidding on the phone through Sotheby’s deputy chairman Mark Poltimore, standing a few feet away. Smith bought the portrait, against Wong, at £49.8m (above an estimate in excess of £36.5m), the second highest amount paid for a work of art in Europe in pounds sterling.

Asked if he could comment on the identity of his client, Smith says: “Im afraid I can’t. We buy and consign at auction regularly on behalf of clients, but confidentiality and discretion are paramount.” The Marie-Thérèse, Smith says, is “a masterpiece portrait” made particularly desirable by “the subject, the date, the condition, the provenance, and the fact it’s completely fresh to the market, offered at auction for the first time, having been in the family for so long. The market has a fairly regular supply of Picassos, but it’s rare to see a painting as special and as fresh to the market as this.” Read more