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There was a wide variety of reactions to the Old Master sales last week in London. Some saw the sales as a triumph of flashy cross marketing. Others saw the inherent value of the category asserting itself over time. It is clear that tastes are changing in the category. But the overall total of £118m with Sotheby's Evening sale achieving an 85% sell-through rate suggests the Old Master category is anything but left for dead.
Perhaps more to the point, the current structure of the art market where third-party guarantees stabilize prices, there's good reason to believe that pricing in the Old Master market has become fairly stable and predictable with some caveats surrounding holding times.
On the positive side, the major lots, a J.M.W. Turner German scene and a Guardi Venetian view, both sold within the reference points of recent, related sales. For the Guardi, the picture sold for pretty much the same price as its pendant which was sold six years ago. This is Bendor Grosvenor's point:
the Guardi ('The Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi') saw much stiffer competition than the Turner, with bidding starting at £12m before hammering at £23.25m (£26.2m with premium). This price compares favourably to the value of the picture's 'pendant', View of the Rialto Bridge, from the Fondamenta del Carbon, which had sold at Sotheby's in 2011 for £26.7m (inc premium).
You can contrast that with The New York Times's Scott Reyburn who seems to have been entranced by a video Christie's made of the painting in situ. According to Reyburn's view, the key to selling Old Master works these days is to market them to Contemporary collectors who are used to paying more:
The Christie’s video was filmed during the opening days of the Venice Biennale, as that city hosted hundreds of wealthy contemporary art collectors. This kind of global marketing, along with the low estimate of £25 million, helped persuade the owner of Guardi’s 6 feet 8 inches wide canvas “Venice: the Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi” to sell.
Except, it turns out the the £25m estimate wasn't attractively low at all. It was pretty much priced by the previous sale of the painting's pendant:
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