Lindsay Pollock offers a tour of record sales made during recessions in her essay in The Art Newspaper.
One of the most significant transactions took place amid the Great Depression. In 1931, Andrew Mellon bought 20 old masters from the Soviet government, with a view to establishing a new national museum in Washington, DC. Mellon paid $7m for the works, plucked from the Hermitage’s walls. The booty included Raphael’s Alba Madonna, around 1510, and Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, around 1481-82: Mellon paid $1.2m for the Raphael alone. In 1937, Mellon donated 125 masterpieces to Washington’s National Gallery of Art. It is reminiscent of today’s sprees by Qatar, Abu Dhabi and other regions with new museums to stock.
Another form of distress selling—a British Earl with estate taxes to pay—brought Diego Velázquez’s 1649-50 portrait of Juan de Pareja to Christie’s in November, 1970, in another US recession. It was bought by the Wildenstein Gallery on behalf of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for $5.54m, another auction record. A short-lived consumer-driven recession in 1980 didn’t dampen the prospects for J.M.W. Turner’s Juliet and Her Nurse, 1836, auctioned at Sotheby’s in London for $6.4m. The sale was discretionary, consigned by 82-year old Flora Whitney Miller, daughter of the founder of the Whitney Museum. Estimated to sell for over $1m, Argentina cement heiress Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat was the buyer.
It wasn’t until 1990—just before the last major recession—that Christie’s sold Van Gogh’s painting of his physician, the 1890 Portrait of Dr Gachet, for $82.5m to Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito who also snagged Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, 1876, at Sotheby’s the following night for $78m.
Art Market Analysis: Why Works Make Records in a Recession (The Art Newspaper)