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The Old Master sales in New York which were lopsided by Christie’s decision to hold their Old Master sales in April with a mix of other categories still demonstrated a collecting field with a fair bit more activity than is recognized popularly.
As with other collecting categories that are not Contemporary art—and even within the overall matrix of the Contemporary category where emphasis has shifted from the top of the market to identifying undervalued pockets—the January Old Master sales displayed the keen interest of collectors on a select number of objects, not necessarily those that were highly estimated by the auction houses.
The various Day and Evening sales of Old Master art, drawing sales and print sales in the Old Master category combined for a total of $52m according to data from Live Auction Art. (More analysis for subscribers below.)
The hammer ratio for all of the sales combined was a mere 1.12 with a 68% sell through rate on the lots offered. Another way to say that is to recognize that the combined hammer price of $43m for all lots was just slightly above the low estimate of $38m. Considering 32% of the lots offered failed to find buyers, there was enough out-performance among many of the lots to bring the hammer ratio 12% above the low estimate.
What does that tell us? Those numbers would suggest a quiet market with moments of excitement. Eleven of the top 15 lots sold above the high estimate. Half of the top six lots sold for multiples of the high estimate.
Were those bidding effects visible deeper in the market, we would be talking about how the Old Masters are witnessing a resurrection. Absent that, we can conclude that there is more life in the Old Master market than is popularly recognized.
Seven of the top 10 lots—and Nine of the top 15 lots—were from the Evening sale of Old Masters. But that still left room for a few works from the drawings and day sales to soar to significant prices, several over $1m.
The broader chart of works that sold for the highest multiples of the low estimate also makes interesting reading. The Old Master market is thirsty for work. But the buyers are setting their own agenda and applying their own valuations.
This chart of works that sold for three times the low estimate or more excludes any object below $50k. Yet it remains 30+ items strong. True. That is only 3% of the objects that were offered.