Resurgent Old Master Market?

The Telegraph takes a look at the recent Old Master sale at Sotheby's which, according to the article in certain instances, did better than many had expected. But, is that not the normally the case, some do well, a few surprises, and then as expected.  The Telegraph notes the strong sales, but also acknowledges that there were, and still are some disappointing sales for the sector.

The Telegraph reports
New York’s Old Master sales last week faced an uphill struggle at the off, but managed to do better than many had feared. Storm Jonas kept many people away from the important weekend previews. The dollar was strong, stock markets volatile, and the media running negative features on the art market.

Christie’s, which had seen its Old Master sales dip by 37 per cent last year, had shifted its sale date back to April, leaving Sotheby’s stranded on its own. The latter also had to contend with a general obsession with the $515 million (£360 million) guarantee it had made on the Alfred Taubman collection. Already behind on the guarantees for his modern and contemporary art, sold last November, the house now faced long odds against the former chairman’s Old Masters making the hoped for $21 million. But in the event it did, just.

The strongest suits were Taubman’s 17th century baroque and 18th century Italian view paintings, both genres that seem to be in vogue with collectors if the quality is good. Taubman bought Crowning with Thorns by French painter Valentin de Boulogne in 1996, when demand for Caravaggio-influenced baroque paintings was weak, below estimate for $882,500. Last week it attracted bidding from north and south America, selling for $5.2 million.

Another good profit was made on a picture of the Grand Canal in Venice, which Taubman bought in 1985 as “attributed to Canaletto” (i.e. not sure) for $113,000. The doubters were right because scholarship has moved on, and when the experts saw the painting, which had been out of view for 30 years, they realised it was by Canaletto’s brilliant nephew, Bernardo Bellotto. Now armed with a positive attribution, it sold to London dealer Richard Green for $3 million.

But elsewhere, it was also evident how areas of this market have remained static, or even declined. A painting of a horse and jockey by John Frederick Herring Sr, for which Taubman had paid $150,000 in 1986, when the British sporting art market was in its prime, sold for just $32,000.

At Sotheby’s other evening sale, bidding by Russians and modern art collectors for Rubens and a follower of Hieronymus Bosch enlivened proceedings, but half the lots were unsold. London dealer Johnny Van Haeften had little competition buying an immaculate view of Haarlem Town Hall by Pieter Jansz Saenredam for $3 million; and a South American collector was the only bidder for a powerful rendition of St Martin healing a writhing man by the Flemish Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens, which he bought for a record $4.7 million.

The highlight of the week without question, however, was the record $30.5 million (£21.4 m) paid for Orazio Gentileschi’s Danae, the highest price ever for a 17th-century Italian painting. The painting captured the moment when, according to Greek legend, Danae was impregnated by Zeus, showering gold from the heavens upon her. The price was on a par with the auction record for Rembrandt, and places Gentileschi among the top ten selling Old Masters at auction (not allowing for inflation).

Sotheby’s had estimated it would fetch $25 million, and after just four very slow bids, including one from Asia, it was knocked down to private dealer Fred Bancroft. Bancroft then walked up to the rostrum and handed Sotheby’s department head, George Wachter, a piece of paper. It revealed that the buyer was in fact the J Paul Getty Museum, whose representatives were sitting quietly at the back of the saleroom.

The museum’s director, Timothy Potts, said Danae was “one of the most important Baroque paintings to come to the market in living memory”. It was somehow significant that the painting had come from the collection of the dealer Richard Feigen, who bought it privately in 1977 for a reported £300,000. Feigen has been a leading critic of the way values have since become distorted in the art market in favour of contemporary art.

But while the price reminds us that great Old Masters can make big money, it is still lower than the records for contemporary artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat ($48.8 million) and Gerhard Richter ($46 million), and not much more than the records for younger artists Christopher Wool ($29.9 million) and Peter Doig ($26 million).

By the end of the week, Sotheby’s had taken $97.5 million (£68.5 million), a shade below the pre-sale estimate, but, partly due to the large amount of material on offer, above average for a series of Old Master sales.
Source: The Telegraph 

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