The Toulouse Caravaggio gets sold before the auction; José Mugrabi’s buying at Christie’s is telling us something about the market
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We Might Not Have Seen the Last of That Caravaggio
The New York Times’s Scott Reyburn moves the ball forward on the Toulouse auction of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes which was cancelled yesterday in favor of a private deal with the owners who discovered the work in their attic.
The obvious question is whether the sale was a sign of market strength (a big, impatient bid) or a sign of weakness (the sellers took the offer knowing there were few other serious bidders.) Reyburn spoke to Eric Turquin, the Old Masters expert who drove the incomplete re-attribution:
- “They did not exactly get cold feet, but they decided it was good for them,” said Mr. Turquin. When the painting was shown in London in February, Mr. Turquin had said it would be auctioned without a reserve price, meaning it could, potentially, have sold for a far lower figure.Immediately after the offer was made on Monday, “three or four” other prospective buyers were asked if they were prepared to bid to a higher level, Mr. Turquin said, but no firm commitments were made and the auction was canceled. “Over €30 million is such a height that the oxygen is rare,” Mr. Turquin added.
Those seem pretty clear signals that the work sold for a very large amount of money but not anywhere near the nine-figure sum the auction house was predicting. In retrospect, the result isn’t very surprising. The sellers seemed to be skipping at least two steps in the process of confirming the work’s authorship and adding value. Those two elements are a prominent museum’s endorsement of the attribution in the full view of the public and scholars and a private sale where someone risks a serious amount of money on the unstable attribution.
The Carvaggio now has the latter. Whatever the buyer paid, it is roughly analogous to the first sale (two sales?) of Salvator Mundi when the original buyers who had identified the painting sold to Yves Bouvier for substantially less than the price Dmitry Rybolovlev ultimately paid. The auction that drove Salvator Mundi into the stratosphere was built on the foundation of those first (two?) sales.
The former, a museum show, is being hinted at by the buyer in all of the stories surrounding the sale. Reyburn is no exception:
- “The person who bought the picture is close to a great museum,” added Mr. Turquin, without naming the institution. “The vendors said they always wanted it to go to a museum.”
Though what seeps through the coverage is that the painting will be on display at a museum but not necessarily gifted. That sets up the potential for a second bite at the apple some time in the future perhaps when the attribution gains acceptance.
Although sales at this level, even the reduced level this pre-emption seems to suggest, are quite rare, it is not uncommon in the world of Old Master works to see prominent museums buy after someone else (usually a dealer) has risked their own money on the attribution and setting the value. For private collectors and institutions, the additional price of the dealer’s mark-up is easier to pay than to take the risk of wasting one’s money on dud. The Caravaggio’s buyer may be taking that risk and might be able to create a stir for the first Caravaggio to come on the market for 40 years again when the dust settles.
Dealers Stock Up at Christie’s £45m Evening Sale
Christie’s £45m June sale of Contemporary art was difficult to judge as a measure of the market simply because of the anomaly of Christie’s current position. With Francis Outred’s departure last Winter, the new team has both re-instituted the June Evening sale of Contemporary art but also somewhat recalibrated their strategy. So it is difficult to get a sense of whether the small sale was indicative of a dormant period in the Contemporary market or shifting of priorities for Christie’s (or simply the new team needing more than a few months to get up to speed on their sales.)
The overall pattern of the sale was to see most works sell for prices near the low estimate. There were a few stand out sales mostly for works by artists the market seems to be ‘discovering.’ Though one interesting anomaly was the Antony Gormley, Vise which was sold from a “corporate collection” through Phillips in October for £300k hammer and was flipped last night at Christie’s for £450k hammer. That’s a 50% return in eight months for a well-established artist with a fair amount of material on the market.
From the reporting, it would appear that we’ve entered an accumulation phase of the market with dealers buying for inventory rather than advisors or dealers buying for clients. The most visible example of this was José Mugrabi who was seated with Adam Chinn and bought several works, the Tschabalala Self, a KAWS, the Bacon (he was seen enquiring about a triptych by the artist at Gagosian, as well) and the final lot in the sale, a 14-inch white Warhol Flowers. He was also seen bidding on a Banksy.
That Mugrabi has started to buy Warhols again after a three-plus year hiatus is a market tell in itself. The lack of competition and slow sales are masking prices that Mugrabi seems to think are bargains. On the KAWS, Mugrabi is playing with the house’s money having already profited handsomely from a previous deal in the artist’s work. The question there is whether Mugrabi was defending KAWS prices because he still owns more inventory or is re-stocking for what he believes will be a longer rise.
The Self is easier to see as a momentum play. But the Bacon is curious business. These are not great works by Bacon and the artist’s market had peaked some time ago. Mugrabi’s buying suggests he views these works as eventual gainers when Bacon hits another upswing.
It would be easy to ascribe this buying to Chinn’s presence and the family beginning to embark on either a broader strategy or simply re-engaging with the market. In other words, it might just be the Mugrabis who need to stock up. But Colin Gleadell saw other dealers doing the same:
- Just outspending Mugrabi was dealer Daniella Luxembourg. Sitting in the front row, she paid a record £1 million ($1.3 million) for a rich, abstract tapestry by Gerhard Richter, and then bought the top lot of the sale: a tumultuous, large 1961 painting titled Ceremony by Jean Dubuffet from his “Paris Circus” series.
- Another strong bidder picking up consecutive lots was London dealer Richard Nagy, who paid a mid-estimate £2 million ($2.5 million) for Diagonal Portrait (2013) by George Condo, and an above estimate £1.6 million ($2 million) for Cecily Brown’s Blonde Eating Birds (2011–12).