There’s nothing new about dealers selling stock through their rivals, the auctioneers, but the trend seems to be peaking through lockdown. Early on this year both Sotheby’s and Christie’s created platforms for dealers to sell through their private sales pages; in April, Sotheby’s launched a new Gallery Network to promote artists represented by a select group of contemporary art dealers they described as “partners.” And on Thursday it was announced in Dubai’s The National newspaper that they would be auctioning work on behalf of local galleries that suffered a setback with the cancellation of Art Dubai in March.
The trend has also been notable in the Old Master market where dealers may have been hardest hit. Their art needs to be seen and inspected in the flesh more than Modern or Contemporary art, and they have been, consequently, less versed in the art of marketing online than dealers in more recent art. But ever since TEFAF Maastricht had to close early in March, the main money-spinning fairs for them to look forward to—Masterpiece London in June and TEFAF New York in the autumn which has an Old Master focus—have been canceled. Old Master dealers taking part in London Art Week in July have a digital replacement, but it hardly compares to a tête-à-tête with Leon Black or a director from the Getty.
In Paris, the cancellation of the Biennale des Antiquaires in September has spurred Christie’s to organize an online auction for the exhibitors—many of them dealers in Antiquities and Old Masters. Now Sotheby’s is getting proactive in this area. Although the successful sales they staged for London dealers Rafael Valls and Danny Katz were in the pipeline before lockdown, they provided a useful springboard for their latest initiative.
For this, they have been fortunate to have the respected former New York dealer, Otto Naumann, who joined Sotheby’s two years ago as Client Development Director for Old Masters, on board. Naumann has organized 39 dealers from London and New York to select three “specially curated” items each from stock for an online auction called “The Dealers’ Eye”—it goes live on Sotheby’s website this morning, with bidding opening June 18 and running through June 25. From New York are leading dealers Wildenstein, Richard Feigen, Colnaghi, and Adam Williams. London has TEFAF regulars Derek Johns, Patrick Matthiesen, Sam Fogg, and Mark Weiss, among others.
With these, Naumann says, “we’ve created our own version of an art fair, where dealers can continue to promote the works that make their individual galleries so unique.”
The dealers are suitably grateful. In a reference to the auction rooms’ enviable client list, London’s Charles Beddington, who contributes one of the more affordable works—Vesuvius Erupting at Night, May 1737, by Tommaso Ruiz (£8,000–£12,000)—says he will find “the wide exposure provided by collaboration with Sotheby’s particularly welcome.”
Estimates for the sale run at $2.3 million to £3.3 million for New York and £2.7 million–£4 million for London. A feature of the proliferating sales online is the speed at which they can be assembled. Naumann began work on this only in late April. As an enticement, Sotheby’s is charging zero percent to the dealers and will rely only on the standard buyer’s premium.
At the higher end of the estimate range of £200,000–£300,000 is an 18th-century view of Florence and the Ponte Alle Grazie by the British artist, Thomas Patch. The fabulous panorama, last at auction in 2008 when it sold for a 10x-estimate $433,000, was to have been presented by London’s Robilant + Voena in their April/June 2020 gallery exhibition, “Italy Lost,” but is Sotheby’s to market for the time being (June 12–25).
Looking at a work’s market history can illustrate what Sotheby’s means by “The Dealer’s Eye”; it is often superior to their own. A seductive painting of a young woman holding plums by the Caravaggio follower, Gerrit van Honthorst, has been consigned by Dutch gallery, Salomon Lilian, priced at $60,000 to S80,000. The painting emerged two years ago in an English country salesroom (Woolley & Wallis, who thought she was holding apples in a reference to the biblical forbidden fruit) after it resided in an English country house (Catton Hall) since 1811. At that sale it was snapped up below estimate for £30,000. The new auction price is more in line with van Honthorst prices generally, and Sotheby’s will be hoping they can do better with plums than their small country rivals did with apples.
A contribution from London’s Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker might remind frequenters of Christie’s South Kensington branch—a favorite hunting ground for “sleepers” by the trade—of a double-sided £4,000-to-£6,000 canvas of a self-portrait “after Sir Joshua Reynolds” with a half-finished portrait by an unknown artist on the reverse. That was in 2015, before South Ken was closed. The portrait on the reverse was catalogued only as English, 18th-century, possibly of the little-known Thomas Haden sketching. The painting then sold for a 10x-estimate £40,000, and found its way to TEFAF Maastricht two years later with the reverse now to the fore, having been identified as a self-portrait by the short-lived history painter, John Hamilton Mortimer.
This excellent piece of detective work did not, however, lead to a sale, and the portrait is included in the “The Dealer’s Eye” with a £30,000–£50,000 estimate. A decent result now might suggest that, while the dealers have a better eye, the auctioneers might have the bigger little black book for sales. And although they may be helping keep the dealers in business, they won’t be passing on the buyers’ details to them.