[intro]19th C Pictures at Christie’s[/intro]
The 2010 season has begun and out of the starting gate were the New York Old Master & 19th century auctions. For their big sales, Sotheby’s stuck to the old formula of offering only Old Master paintings; however Christie’s continued with their new formula – a merger of Old Master & 19th century works.
Christie’s is determined to prove that they made a good move by combining the two departments, but you already know my thoughts on this — I do not like it.
Granted, financially they made a good move – less staff, means less overhead and more profit – and they did use typical 19th century works for most of their cover illustrations. Christie’s claims the main cover is also a 19th century work and they are right when looking at its date (1812), but Louis Boilly paintings are normally sold in Old Master sales; and while a few of the paintings look nice together, most do not – the heavily religious Old Masters are just so different from the more romantic/sentimental works of the 19th and 20th centuries — in my humble opinion.
In addition, I know we can all agree that paintings by Dorothea Sharp, Montague Dawson, Sorbi and Seago do not work with those by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Nicolas de Largillierre and Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli. I have to add that Sotheby’s also has an Old Master/19th Century sale this week, but it consists of the less expensive works and the first half of the catalog only offers Old Masters while the second half is devoted to the 19th century … that is something I can deal with – one book, 2 sections.
Anyway, let’s move on to the action at Christie’s.
The breakdown of the sale was as follows: 331 lots with 199 (58%) Old Masters and 139 (42%) 19th Century. Christie’s claimed 205 Old Master (62%) and 126 19th Century (38%), but since this is my article I will include those artists who are normally sold in 19th century sales; and anyway, what is a couple of artists between friends? On second thought, I hope this is not a new trend … start siphoning off the best 19th century artists and move them to the Old Master classification; thereby leaving no important artists in 19th century in the hopes that it may just disappear!!! I will leave that conspiracy theory to someone else.
Now I am going to limit most of my comments to the 19th century paintings since I know very little about the Old Masters. After initially reviewing the catalog I was troubled by the number of 19th century sporting paintings – 43 in all (31% of the 19th Century works) and of those, 19 were by Alfred Munnings – talk about too much of a good thing – it was going to take a great deal of work to move 19 Munnings which had a combined estimate range of $4 -$6.2M (about ½ of the afternoon’s expected overall 19th century take). In addition there were about 11 Orientalist pieces and the balance, 85, were the typical mix – Corot, Bouguereau, Sorbi, Grimshaw, and a bunch of mid-range works; still shows they are having a very difficult time sourcing material.
The Morning session featured only 58 works (I guess this was instead of an Evening sale) — 46 Old Master and 12 from the 19th century (a 64/34 split); slightly better than the 90/10 split we saw in their recent London Evening sale (keep in mind that I am not including the Boilly work in my 19th century figures). From this session’s 19th century works 7 sold and 5 were returned to their owners for a sell-through rate of 58% and a total take of $2.8M (hammer) – a complete disaster since they expected $7.12M – $10.48M for the group.
Placing your hopes on some very difficult paintings is not the best move these days. Among the biggest disappointments (unsold) were Palmer’s The Sleeping Shepherd (est. $2.5-$3.5M); Corot’s rather dark and unattractive The Evening Star (est. $1.2 – $1.8M) and Bouguereau’s late Amour voltigeant sur les eaux (est. $500-$700,000) – now before you say: What, a large Bouguereau did not sell? Keep in mind, that images of naked boys are not among his most highly sought after subjects. On the bright side, there were a few strong prices Louis Boilly’s café scene at $4M; Gandolfi’s Diana and Callisto at $3.6M and Brueghel II’s Noah’s ark at $2.5M – and if you have not guessed, they were all Old Master works. But even these strong prices could not erase the fact that only 31 works sold, producing a sell-through rate of just 53.4%.
The afternoon sale (which consisted of far too many lots) started at 2:00 pm and by 4:21 they were only up to lot 228 … leaving another 146 to go. It is important to note that these sales usually end by 4:30 and at the rate they were going, I figured the sale was going to end at 6:30 pm … and it did!
Well, as I predicted, the sale of 19 Munnings was going to be a tough one … only 12 found buyers for a sell-through rate of 63% and a total take of $2.63M (hammer) – far below their $4-$6.2M estimate. Why couldn’t they have spread these paintings out over 2 or 3 sales both here and in London? I am sure the results would have been far better and the sellers much happier.
Once the dinner bell rang, and I was eating dinner by the time the sale was over, the results for the afternoon’s 19th century works spoke volumes. Of the 127 works offered 78 sold and 49 were bought-in for a sell-through rate of about 61% and a total take of $5.95M (hammer) – also well below their expected $8.7 – $12.7M presale estimate. And when added together, the 19th century works from the two sessions brought in about $8.8M — the presale estimate was $16 – $23M.
I will continue preaching this … without good material, the results are going to be disappointing; and trying to hide the fact that you cannot source enough really good material by combining the less than stellar 19th century works with the Old Masters is not going to change this fact. Small, stronger, individual sales are the way to go … and if you cannot find enough art to create a good sale, then do not have one! Also, do not flood the market with any single artist’s work – quality, rather than quantity, is the way to go.
And in case you are wondering, the sale’s total results were as follows: 331 works offered, 215 sold (a sell-through rate of 65%) and a total take of $39.5M (with the auction’s commission), well below their expectation of at least $48M (without their commission).