Picasso masterpiece raises A$20.6 million to fund Sydney research

22 June 2011

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, with the painting 'Jeune fille endormie'.
University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, with the painting 'Jeune fille endormie'.

University of Sydney researchers will be able to pursue innovative new solutions to one of the 21st century's biggest global health challenges thanks to the £13.5 million (A$20.6 million) sale of a rarely seen Picasso masterpiece.

The painting, Jeune fille endormie, was given to the University in 2010 by an anonymous donor on the condition that it would be sold and all the proceeds directed to scientific research.

It was auctioned at Christie's in London on Tuesday 21 June (Wednesday morning Australia time).

"This is a great result which is transformative for the University and for the health of the nation," said University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, who was in London for the auction.

"The sale of this remarkable work is the result of one donor's extraordinary generosity who said 'this painting is going to change the lives of many people'. They were right. We are grateful for their extraordinary generosity and delighted with the outcome of the auction.

"The proceeds of the sale of the Picasso will go to a wonderful cause. They will create multiple endowed chairs across several disciplines within a new multidisciplinary University centre dedicated to research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"The University's new centre will transform research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of these conditions, involving everything from metabolic research to the economics of food supply. It will be the only multidisciplinary research centre of its kind bringing together everyone from philosophers to dieticians, from economists to physiologists, all of whom will bring a different perspective to this international problem."

Professor Steve Simpson, an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Sydney and a member of the governing board of the new centre was also in London.

"This is going to galvanise new ways of thinking about these diseases, by bringing the University resources together into a purpose built building with high-class laboratories where our existing and new staff can work to solve global problems," Professor Simpson said.

"Transformational research requires inspirational research leaders. This will allow the University to recruit the best people available to new chairs in the centre. It is a wonderful start to what will be a world-class collaborative research centre."

In a packed Christie's room, the auction of the University's Picasso took less than two minutes, the price moving quickly from an opening bid of £7 million.

A few hours later in Sydney, around 400 University staff gathered in the Great Hall to watch a video replay of the auction footage, introduced by Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research).

Professor Louise Baur speaking in the University's Great Hall.
Professor Louise Baur speaking in the University's Great Hall.

Professor Louise Baur, a specialist in paediatric obesity and pre-diabetes, told her colleagues how, when she was a medical student at the University in the 1970s there was just one single lecture on obesity during a six-year medical course.

However, in her current role as a paediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Westmead she and her colleagues now see numerous children and young people who are affected by severe obesity or pre-diabetes. Her patients include primary school children who are on drug therapy for their pre-diabetes or on breathing machines for sleep apnoea caused by their obesity.

"What has happened over the past 35 years or so? Why are we, as a community, facing this sort of health problem? And what can be done to turn this situation around?"

As a senior academic who will play a key role in the new centre, Professor Baur said the cross-disciplinary breakthroughs generated by the new centre would be critical in answering these and other questions.

"I, as a paediatrician, can only look at, and try to tackle, a small part of the problem. If we want to be serious about addressing obesity, or diabetes or heart disease - or any other similar complex problem - then we will need to work with people from a range of disciplines."

Back in London, Christie's staff commented on the importance of the Picasso.

"This is an absolute jewel of a painting, one that we have all come to love so much," said Giovanna Bertazzoni, Director and Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, Christie's London.

"I am sorry to see her leave our care, but at the same time delighted that the proceeds will go to such an important cause. It has been a real pleasure for Christie's to work with the University of Sydney."

Olivier Camu, Christie's International Director of Impressionist and Modern Art, added:

"It has been an absolute delight to have handled the sale of this wonderful painting. From the moment I first saw it when I visited the University of Sydney I was captivated by the variety of its beautiful colours, its richly textured surface and the pristine condition of the painting.

"Not surprisingly there has been a great deal of interest in this marvellous work, which has been added to by the story of what the University will do with the proceeds."

According to the World Health Organization, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and related conditions such as renal disease, breast cancer and colorectal cancer are now the leading causes of disease and mortality globally.

The causes of these diseases are complex and multidimensional - they are the product of a constellation of factors, ranging from which genes people inherit to what they are able to buy in their supermarket and how they spend their working lives. Reducing the prevalence, incidence and impact of these diseases requires a broad-based and coordinated effort.

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