An art auction can be a Rashomon event: no two observers see it the same way. Where Souren Melikian saw a robust market dominated by connoisseurs and observed by chagrined dealers who could not get enough credit, Carol Vogel sees a cooling market where dealers cannot afford to sit on inventory and private buyers chase only the best of the best work:
“For great things there’s still a lot of money,” said Mr. Feigen, who sat in the front of Sotheby’s salesroom watching the morning’s proceedings.
But what money there is was being spent judiciously. While the market for old master paintings has not seen the wild gyrations that contemporary art has, and while its buyers tend to be older and more conservative, there was still a noticeable resistance when it came to spending more than $1 million.
And unlike the markets for Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art, old masters sales are traditionally dominated by dealers. While many of them could be seen in the salesroom both at Christie’s on Wednesday and Sotheby’s on Thursday, they were not the biggest buyers. Neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s made anywhere near what they had estimated. The reason, several dealers said, is that business has not been good since the financial crisis in the fall. So there is no longer pressure to replenish stock, nor cash to go shopping.
“There was no loose money,” George Wachter, vice chairman of Sotheby’s old master paintings department, said after the morning’s session. “Private people were still bidding, but dealers were particularly selective.”
The morning’s sale brought $57.7 million, well below its low estimate of $74.4 million. “It was hard to know how the market would react,” Mr. Wachter said when asked if he would have put less expensive works in his sale. “Eleven paintings still made over $1 million.”
Meanwhile, the Master, Judd Tully, gives a detailed and thorough look at the breadth of the Old Master market on ArtInfo.com. Here’s his conclusion:
Even with results falling well below pre-sale estimates and long patches of no-bid buy-ins, the decidedly conservative Old Masters market have proven there’s still serious money being spent on standout artworks with reasonable estimates.
Digging deeper into the details of the sale, Tully shows that the real action was often at the lower end of the estimate scale:
At the Held sale, which kicked off Old Masters week on January 27, impressive results were earned by Joachim Beuckelaer’s A Market Scene (1562), an oil on panel groaning with game and vegetables, which shot to $542,500 (est. $200–300,000); and Hendrik van der Borcht’s loose-leaf-page-sized A Collection of Ancient Objects, which fetched $182,500 (est. $30–50,000). Even attributed works not bearing a signature found interest. The dashing Portrait of Edward Wortley, Lord Montagu, dressed as an Arab sheik — an ovular painting attributed to George Romney — shot to $46,250 (est. $3,000–5,000).
And he singles out a few remarkable sales at Sotheby’s as well:
If anyone doubts there’s little juice left in this old timers’ market, note the intense heat generated for two very different pictures, which both sold for many times their estimates: Francois Boucher’s The Muse Erato, originally painted for the Marquise de Pompadour, which sold for $1,314,500 (est. $300–500,000) after last selling at Christie’s New York in January 1991 for $330,000; and Pierre Subleyras’s signed and dated sleeper Portrait of Pope Benedict XIV from 1746, which sold to New York dealer Adam Williams for $986,500 (est. $100–150,000).
Turner and A Few Others Succeed at Slow Sales (New York Times)
Risk Brings Rewards in Old Masters Sales (ArtInfo.com)