Howard L. Rehs is a dealer in 19th Century art at Rehs Gallery in New York. He pays close attention to the auction market and offers his commentary to clients and subscribers to his company newsletter. He shares his point of view on recent auctions with us from time to time:
20th Century British
On the 26th of May Christie’s put forth its Modern British sale at the overall results continued to illustrate the strength at the upper end of the market. The sale offered 175 lots of which 120 sold (a sell-through rate of just 69%); however, the prices paid for some of the stellar works were rather staggering. Taking top honors was L.S. Lowry’s The Football Match which made £5M (est. £3.5-4.5M) — it was last on the public market in 1992 and sold for £120,000. In addition, strong prices were seen for Sir Stanley Spencer’s The Crucifixion which brought £1.75M (est. £1-1.5M) – last on the market in 1995 at £420,000; and S.J. Peploe’s The Coffee Pot that made £800,000 (est. £800-1.2M) – an auction record. In the end, the sale brought in £15.2M (est. £14.6-21.2M) … so they needed the buyer’s premium to push it over the edge; however, this was the highest total for a Modern British sale … beating the 2007 result by £2M. On the 25th Sotheby’s offered their sale, but there was very little meat here (the main reason is that Sotheby’s snagged the Evill/Frost collection of 20th C. British art which was sold in June – a knockout set of sales). The top price for this sale was Barry Flanagan’s Boxing Hare on Anvil at £320K (est £300-500K). In addition a Ceri Richards’ piece sold for £220K (est. £100-150K) – a new auction record. In the end, the sale brought in £3.76M from 98 of the 133 lots offered (73.7% sell-through rate).
On June 7 the action moved to Amsterdam for a small sale of 19th Century European paintings at Sotheby’s … and in my opinion they would have been better off waiting until the fall for this one. What I found very interesting is that they actually had a 3 page post sale press release and a Sotheby’s spokesperson was quoted as saying: This very successful total result shows us again the strong demand nowadays for paintings of good quality coming from private collections. Look, they offered 81 works and sold 38 … a sell-through rate of 46.9% and a total take of €1.586M ($2.31M) – not a sell-through rate I would be boasting about. Now I was trying to figure out how they came close to their presale expected range of €1.5-2M, according to the press release, when more than ½ of the works offered did not sell … at first I thought maybe it was some sort of magic trick, but upon closer examination I realized that most of the unsold works were the lower valued items (31 of the 43 were estimate to sell for €10K or less)!? In addition, many of those were balanced out by some of the pricier works selling for more than their estimates. Top lots in this sale were Willem Koekkoek’s Winter street scene that made €229K – ($333K – est. €100-150K), C. Springer’s Figures at the Fish Market in Delft which made €163K – ($237K – est. €150-200K) and Schendel’s A Vegetable Seller… brought €145K – ($210K – est. €100-150K). Other works that help make up for the large unsold percentage were a Verheyden at €97K – ($141K – est. €12-18K), a Verveer at €103K – ($150K – est. €50-80K) and an Arntzenius at €79K – ($115K – est. €20-30K). This sale shows that a few good works can make up for a great deal of ‘stuff’ that is not going to sell. Like I have been saying, in the current market, less is more! On the 15th we were back in London for a Christie’s doubleheader – Victorian & British Impressionists in the morning and 19th Century European in the afternoon. Here again, the results were not the best … as I have been saying all along, they need to hold fewer and stronger 19th century sales ; the filler is just not selling causing pretty high unsold rates. Taking top honors in the Victorian sale was Frank Cowper’s The Blue Bird which sailed past its 100-150K estimate to sell for £373K ($610K) and taking second and third place were works by Munnings: Shrimp off to Market brought £265K ($434K – est. £120-£180K) – and a small study titled Her Majesty the Queen… commanded 181K ($296K – est. £60-£80k). Among the biggest failures were: Clausen’s small Head of a Girl (est. £300-£500K) – a bit too much in my opinion; H. Tuke’s Under the Western Sun (est. £250-£350K) and T.C. Gotch’s The Dawn of Womanhood (est. £180-£250K). When the session was over, of the 145 works offered only 76 sold, leaving a sell-through rate of 54% and a total take of £3M ($4.99M) – not very good since the expected range was £4.2 – £6.3M. In the 19th Century European sale the top lot was Pasini’s The Pashas Escort at £577K ($944K – est. £300-£500K). In second was a work by Moreau that brought £469K ($767K – est. £200-£300K) and third place was taken by an ok Corot (in the photos it appeared to have a good deal of cracking) that made £205K ($335K – est. £100-£150K). Rounding out the top five were another Corot (a rather uninteresting forest landscape from the 1820s) that trounced its £40-£60K estimate to sell for £193K ($316K) and a Casas y Carbo interior scene at £181K ($296K – est. £100-£150K). In addition, the top lot in this sale, a work by Tornai that was est. at £1-£1.5M, failed to sell. In the end, of the 112 works offered only 61 sold, generating a 55% sell-through rate and a total take of £3.9M ($6.3M) – again, well below the expected range of £5.6 – £8.3M. Here is my question: why didn’t they cut out half of the items offered in these sales and create one really strong 19th Century Art sale? Between these two sales they offered 257 works, which is far too many. Similar combined sales in New York are now offering 100 lots or less.
20th Century British
The evening of the 15th saw Sotheby’s Part I of the Evill/Frost sale of 20th Century British Art (there were 3 parts in all) … and when you read the results you will see why they had little to worry about when their sale in late May only brought £3.76M (covered above). This was an amazing collection of art formed during the mid 20th century and many of the works were acquired just after they were created. The top 4 works were all by Sir Stanley Spencer with Sunflower and Dog Worship making £5.4M GBP ($8.85M: est. £1-1.5M) – it was originally purchase in 1945 for £100 GBP; Workmen in the House bringing £4.7M ($7.75M: est. £1.5-2.5M) – bought in 1937 for £250 GBP; The Bathing Pool at £4.2M ($6.8M: est. £800-1.2M) and bought in 1958 for £200 GPB; and finally Beatitude 8 made £3.8M ($6.3M: est. 1-1.5M) – bought in 1944 for £120 GPB. When the evening ended, of the 30 works offered, 30 sold – 100% sell-through rate and the total take was an amazing £37.4M ($61.2M) … the presale high estimate for all three sales was £19M. Here is an interesting fact: there were 7 works by Spencer in this session and they brought a combined total of £23M ($37.6M) … they were originally purchased for a total of £1,372.10 – now that is some price appreciation! The next day Part II took place and while the total dollar amount achieved was far from the evening sale, the overall results were as good as they could be. Top lot here was a William Roberts at £409K – $662K (est. £30-50K) and Sir Spencer accounted for 5 of the top ten slots. When this part ended, of the 87 works offered, 87 sold …. A 100% sell-through rate … and the total take was £3.97M ($6.42M). Part III was made up of furniture, Meissen and the like … not something I cover; but I must note that of the 172 items offered, 172 sold — another 100% sell-through rate. When all totaled, the three sales brought in £42.5M ($69.3M) with a 100% sell-through rate; goes to show you that fresh-to-the-market works can bring in the BIG MONEY!