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:
Once again, Sotheby’s placed its 19th century sale at the end of their Impressionist and Modern sales … hoping to capitalize on all the activity. It is still hard for me to believe that someone who buys Picasso, Klimt, Magritte, Matisse, etc. would really be interested in the standard 19th century works. I can see that there might be some crossover from the Impressionist buyers, but after 3 days of over $400 million being sold in those periods, are the same people ready to look at what can only be classified as the ‘more affordable works”? I have my doubts. In order for the 19th century works to gain momentum, we need a 19th century sales week … like they had in the past; and if they really believe that their big players in other markets are interested in our market, just send them a catalog. Anyway, on with the show:
When the catalog arrived, it appeared that Sotheby’s had a much better sale than the competition … covered in last month’s newsletter. And after viewing the works, I was pretty sure their results would be far better than Christie’s … which, in the end, they were.
Now I must admit that I was more than surprised at the top lot: a masterful Herring Sr. titled Preparing to Start for the Doncaster Gold Cup which carried an estimate of $400-$600K and sold for $2.1M … and we all thought the British Sporting market was dead! Go figure. Taking second place was our old friend Bouguereau whose 1897 At the Fountain made $1.98M (est. $1-$1.5M) – this work last sold in 1999 for $900K; and in third was Charles Herman’s Bal Masque at $1M (est. $1-$1.5M) … an extremely large work (126 x 158 inches) that was bought in 1992 for $650K. Rounding out the top five were Corot’s Ronde d’Amours at $963K (est. $900-$1.2M) and a wonderful Munnings – Crossing the Ford – that made $915K (crushing its $250-$350K estimate)… yes, another Sporting painting … could this be a trend? Probably not, but who knows.
After their fairly recent success with works by Alma-Tadema they were able to pull in another 4 works; however, none of them really matched the power of The Finding of Moses. Tadema’s Education of the Children of Cloivs (a large and not a very attractive work, in my opinion) managed to sell for $915K (below its $1-$1.5M est.). A chalk and pencil version of the same subject carried a $40-$60K estimate and sold for $69K – and to be honest, I liked the work on paper better. Then there was his A Spring Festival which had the right subject matter, but was not a very attractive piece (in my opinion) which actually sold for $579K on a $1-$1.5M est. – talk about a low reserve … someone really wanted to get rid of that one! And the last piece was a nice watercolor that we sold a number of years ago and now carried an estimate of $70-$100K – about twice what we sold it for — it failed to sell … someone shouldn’t have been so greedy! Now maybe the market for Tadema has come back down to reality because the works offered here made more realistic prices; but I guess we will have to wait for another work in the Moses class to be sure.
In addition, there were other interesting, and not so interesting, works. Among the interesting pieces were: Bouguereau’s Yvonne sur le… at $615K (est. $500-$700K); Godward’s Contemplation at $639K (est. $300-$400K – this work sold in 1998 for $162K and again in 2007 for $288K … nice increase) and his A Congenial Task that made $723K (est. $200-$300K); Knight’s small Chrysanthemums at $165K (est . $100-$150K) and Munnings’ The Young Entry… at $495K (est. $200-$300K – sold in 1987 for $88K; again in 2001 for $468K and again in 2005 for $621K – so a bit of a loss for the seller). Among the not so good works (remember, this is just my opinion): Bouguereau’s Le Citron, which was definitely over-cleaned at some point, sold for $231K (est. $250-$250K); Raffaelli’s Le Vieux Saveteur … not very attractive … failed to find a buyer – thank goodness; Vibert’s The Fortune Teller, which had condition issues, failed (est. $300K-$500K) and Mogan’s The Flood also passed with an est. of $150-$200K – not the best subject matter.
As for the numbers: the sale consisted of 111 works (a few more than the competition) of which 66 sold (59.5%) and the total take was $19.4M – low end of the estimate range was $17.8M. Christie’s 19th century sale (last month) offered 107 works with only 47 selling (44%) and a total take of $6.6M … so from the numbers it is clear Sotheby’s was able to get better material. Now while their sale’s total was far from the May, 2011, ($44.65M) and November, 2010, ($61.5M) results – one must remember that each of those sales included works by Tadema that brought “are you kidding” prices – $29M and $36M respectively. So if you remove those particular works, we see that this sale’s overall results were basically in line with the past few sales in terms of gross dollars; however, it did fall a bit short on the sell-through rate: November 2010: 73.2% (82 offered and 60), May 2011: 66% (100 offered and 66 sold) and November 2011: 59.5% (107 offered and 66 sold) … an indication that good material is getting harder to find and buyers are paying strong prices for the right works. It also shows that making the sales larger, at this time, is not a good thing!
Drilling a little deeper we see that there were 33 works that fell into the Barbizon/Realist area, of which 25 sold (75.8%); 6 Orientalist works of which 4 sold (66.6%); Sporting had 14 pieces and 8 sold (57.1%); 4 were Marine and 2 sold (50%); 20 Neoclassical of which 12 sold (60%) and of the other 34 works 15 found buyers (44.1%).
Since I did it for the other 19th century sale, here is how the saleroom faired in terms of their individual estimates vs. the hammer price for the 66 sold works: 36 below, 19 within and 11 above. For all of the works offered, their estimates were right 17.75% of the time.
I need to add one more result … another big surprise to me and a great example of the art market’s inefficiencies. Jean Beraud’s Backgammon at the Cafe, which had a lot of cracking and pigment separation, made $387K (est. $250-$350K) … not only was I surprised by the final price, but by the fact that in May this same painting sold in Germany for $114K … so the seller made one heck of a score! Wish I could see that kind of return with some of my stocks!!!