London Old Master Sales

The Wall Street Journal looks at the recent London Old Master sales. The WSJ article states the old master category is the smallest sector with only about 10% of the total art market.  Typically for a sale to be considered good, the sell through rate should be above 70%.  Christie's recently sold only 53%, while the Sotheby's sale did 81%. Additionally, collectors in the old master category seek out quality, condition, provenance and new to market, and if a painting does not contain all  of these elements, it can suffer in the auction market.

The Wall Street Journal reports
Sales of Old Masters were a disappointing mixed bag this week, with collectors zeroing in on the most rarefied paintings and giving short shrift to dozens of less-distinguished works.

At auctions in London, Christie's sold only 53% of its works, falling short of the 70% threshold that represents a strong showing for Old Masters. Sotheby's sold 81% of its offerings, generating $117 million in sales. Bidders hewed to a time-tested formula, holding out for works of undisputed provenance by well-known painters that hadn't been on the market in decades.

Christie's $77 million in sales Tuesday was partly a consequence of padding its offerings with middling works. Many had dour religious themes unpopular with Asian collectors who bided their time and snatched up secular pieces at Sotheby's the following evening.

Old Masters are the art market's smallest category, accounting for 10% of the total auction market last year compared with 75% for contemporary and modern art, according to research group Arts Economics. Old Masters represent only a sliver of activity partly because most top works are in museums and won't be sold.

Unlike contemporary artists, whose auction values fluctuate with trends, Old Master painters seldom see interest surge thanks to marketing by a dealer or auction house. It also is crucial for Old Master paintings to be in pristine condition.

"If what an artist created gets older with time and is poorly maintained or gets restored badly, it's like a person aging poorly or getting too much" plastic surgery, said Sotheby's Old Master specialist Alexander Bell.

Three of Sotheby's top five sellers this week came from the Duke of Northumberland's collection. All were in beautiful condition and hadn't changed hands for at least 150 years.

A painting's subject also can affect sales. Although both auction houses accept religious works, they say depictions of death or torture leave many collectors cold. A flawless 1615 scene of Jesus nailed to the cross by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, owned by Belgian industrialist Evence Coppée and kept off the market for 80 years, failed to reach its $5 million low estimate at Sotheby's. Buyers at Christie's passed on a dour portrait of Jesus by El Greco with a $1 million low estimate.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

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