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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:
The painting was one of a pair of large-scale Guardi views from the 1760s, showing the Rialto Bridge from north and south, that had been divided between the two children of Paul Channon, a British politician who died in 2007. The view from the south was sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for £26.7 million with fees, or about $42.7 million, an auction high for any Venetian view painting. The low estimate had been £15 million.
The Old Masters world moves at a different pace from the rest of the art market. So six years probably isn’t enough to change the estimate range on the work. Had Christie’s persuaded the consignor to price the work attractively, it would have chosen something close to the £15m from 2011—even after accounting for the post-Brexit drop in the pound.
On the Turner, The Antiques Trade Gazette was disappointed that the work did not elicit bids beyond the irrevocable bid secured by Sotheby’s:
Although it led the auction by a considerable distance, the competition that arrived on Ehrenbreitstein was underwhelming with the lot selling on its revised low-estimate to a lone phone bidder. It was originally estimated at £15m-25m in the catalogue, but this was scaled up to £17m-25m after the lot became the subject of an ‘irrevocable bid’ arranged in the run-up to the auction. Asked to comment on what had happened, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department Alex Bell said after the sale: “Some vendors, including trustees, like security going into a sale. The revised estimate was still within the original range.”
Judd Tully tried to sort out the pricing on the Turner since two larger Roman scenes sold in the last seven years had both made just about £27m four years apart. The question is whether the £10m shortfall represents an outlier price or the quality and size of the work. You can find opinions on both sides. Tully spoke one who thought it was a outlier on the low side:
Certainly, the German subject matter may have been an alienating factor for some. “It’s one of the best Turners in private hands,” opined Nicholas Hall, a New York based old master dealer and former head of Christie’s Old Masters, “and whoever bought that got a terrific picture and probably underpaid.” Hall added, “it’s a very selective market” and the uninspiring price for the Turner “took the wind out of the sale.”
See what he did there? Sale/sails? Anywho—the big lots were sold without much mystery or fanfare but that doesn’t mean the sales were a snooze.
On the risk side, a group of works sold by a former client of a prominent dealer got a lot of attention because the prices they sold for created a loss for the collector. But, as Grosvenor points out, the works were being sold too quickly for the Old Master market to view them as fresh or exciting. Perhaps more to the point for those who measure solely in gains, the same seller recently made a big profit that outweighs these slight losses. Here’s Grosvenor explaining:
we mustn’t worry to much for the vendor losing some money on these paintings, for the same collector (I am told) is doing handsomely enough on the sale of their Flinck portrait, which sold in New York in April for $10m, having been bought in London in 2011 for £2.3m.
The other major disappointment of the sale was a Canaletto lot that surprised most observers by not selling. Having said that, there were a number of success stories. Judd Tully enumerates a few here:
A telephone bidder nabbed Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s multi-figured and decidedly busy “Wedding Feast” in oil on oak panel that made £1,808,750/$2,337,990 (est. £1-1.5 million] and, another narrative work, Jan Steen’s bedroom chamber scene from the 1660’s, “The Doctor’s Visit,” featuring in part a young woman holding her belly, beat expectations and sold for £812,750/$1,050561 (est. £400-600,000).
Pieter Claesz’s “A Roemer, an overturned pewter jug, olives half-peeled lemon on pewter plates” in oil on panel from 1635, hit a record £956,750/$1,236,695 (est £600-800,000).
Sir Anthony van Dyck’s striking grisaille, as in black and white “Portrait of the engraver Jean-Baptist Barbe” in oil on panel, soared to £1,628,750/$2,105,322 (est. £200-300,000).
Tully did point out one sale that belies Grosvenor’s observation that the Old Masters market penalizes flipping. There was a Tiepolo that sold well for £3m that had been bought 9 1/2 years earlier at Christie’s for £1.3m, a solid 50% rise in value:
Another big performer was Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Venetian themed “The Minuet”, a rather fantastic scene of dancers, including masked female figures that sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £3,077,000/$3,978,561 (est. £1.5-2.5 million). Giandomenico is the less famous son of Giambattista, and the family workshop was the most sought after shop of its time. The 13 1/8 by 19 ¼ inch oil on canvas last sold at Christie’s London in December 2007 for £1,308,500.
Colin Gleadell had these tidbits, including the inside line from Johnny van Haeften:
Last year at an auction in Washington they bought a painting of a grim-looking old woman on a split panel that was catalogued as ‘Studio of Rubens’ (i.e., by one of his assistants) for $27,000. Then they cleaned up and prettified her, covered up the panel cracks, and most importantly, had the painting confirmed as by Rubens himself by the by the Rubenianum in Antwerp. Thus transformed, it sold for £416,750 ($538,700).
The longest bidding battle of the sales came when a record, five-times-estimate £557,000 was paid by dealer Johnny van Haeften for a still life catalogued as by the rarely seen 17th century artist, David Rijckaert the Younger. Cornered after the sale, van Haeften displayed his superior knowledge: “It’s not Rijckaert; it’s Osias Beert,” he beamed (Beert can make nearer a million).
And what about the old man’s head attributed to Rembrandt that he chased over estimate until it sold to a phone bidder for £2.1 million? “Well I obviously didn’t think it was Rembrandt because I wouldn’t have stopped there,” he said. “But I had a hunch it was by Rembrandt’s son, Titus.”
The Antiques Trade Gazette was paying close attention to these sales:
Elsewhere at the auction, some decent bidding emerged on a small oil on panel portrait of the engraver Jean-Baptiste Barbe by Sir Anthony van Dyck which overshot a £200,000-300,000 estimate and sold at £1.35m, and a recently-identified portrait of Anne of Hungary’s court fool by Jan Sanders van Hemessen that fetched £1.8m against a £400,000-600,000 estimate.
Earlier in the day, Sotheby’s posted a record for a drawing by Canaletto (1697 – 1768) when a well-preserved pen and brown ink study depicting the coronation of the Doge at the Doge’s Palace was knocked down at £2.2m to dealer Jean Luc Baroni.
It was one of a series of 12 depictions of Venice’s ceremonies and festivals that the artist made around 1735, and was the first example to appear at auction in over 40 years.
Although it sold below its £2.5m-3.5m estimate, the auctioneers’ worldwide head of Old Master drawings Greg Rubinstein said it was “ by far the most important drawing by Canaletto to have come to the market in recent decades, and one of the most illuminating and enlightening”.
Since we’re siding with the optimists about the Old Master market over the pessimists or the ones who think the only way to make Old Masters appealing is to dress them up in videos and trot them out in front of Contemporary collectors, let’s give the last word to Bendor Grosvenor who thinks about these issues—they being his livelihood—more than most:
I think the main point is that the Old Master market is still showing strong signs of health. It is not only plodding on as it always has done, but with strong prices for unusual pictures and rare masterpieces, is even now showing signs of competing well with other more usually dominant sectors.
For example, Sotheby’s recently decided to put a still-life into a sale of 20th and 21st Century works. The exquisite still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder made £2.9m (est. £2m-£3m) and was the top lot of the sale, beating the likes of Lucian Freud and Joan Miro. It was a brave call by Sotheby’s, and it paid off. And I’m not the only one who thinks that Old Masters might be at something of a turning point.
Consider, for example, another strong performer at Sotheby’s evening sale, the portrait of Anne of Hungary’s court ‘fool’, by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. This was on one level a rather average portrait, of an old woman in a curious costume by a 16th Century artist not many people have heard of. Not so long ago it might have done well to reach £50k in a day sale. But now the market really responds to quirky and fascinating objects, which this was, and the picture made £2.16m (and was underbid by an online bidder, merilly clicking away from the hundreds of thousands).
Bendor Grosvenor (Art History News)
Selling Old Masters Now Requires Learning New Tricks (The New York Times)
JMW Turner’s landscape sells for ‘underwhelming’ £17m (Antiques Trade Gazette)
Sotheby’s Mild Mannered Old Master Night (Judd Tully)
A Guardi Rules the Evening at Christie’s (Judd Tully)