Souren Melikian thinks the London round of Old Master sales which passed without much in the way of fireworks or excitement should be a judged a rousing success and a sign of a very bullish market in Old Master pictures. That’s because Melikian didn’t think much of the paintings on offer:
In a nutshell, the £25.31 million auction could not have gone better. Yet this was not the message that came across if you did not closely look at the works on offer and check their expected performance.
Christie’s was extremely lucky with an optimistically estimated Claude Lorrain that sold on a single bid for £2.05 million, thereby setting a record for the French master. But, with an estimate set at £15 million to £20 million, the star lot, Nicolas Poussin’s “Ordination,” never stood a chance even in a very bullish market. Its melodramatic characters striking theatrical postures are uninspiring, to put it mildly.
Add some academic pictures of the late 19th and early 20th century thrown in to pad a very thin sale. Hung next to Old Masters, they looked ridiculous. Their main contribution was to raise the proportion of failures in an auction which, seen with a professional’s eye, was actually a great success.
Sotheby’s sale the day after provided a striking parallel to Christie’s performance. Here too, works from little known artists elicited an enthusiastic response from eager bidders. The session was only into its second lot when a Crucifixion done around 1500 by an anonymous master of “the North Netherlandish School” climbed to £157,250, way above the high estimate. Immediately after, a Virgin and Child by the 16th-century Spanish painter Luis de Morales nearly quadrupled the highest expectations pinned on it, bringing a world record £1.6 million at the end of a furious bidding match.
Vanishing Old Masters Save Another Day (International Herald Tribune/New York Times)