A Weak Group of Old Master Sales

Last week London held its Old Master sales and the results, even with a good spin appear to be mixed.  The sales are off over 40% from the 2014 sales at Bonhmas, Christie;s and Sotheby's.  At Bonhams, one third of the lots failed to sell, at Christie's the top lots failed to sell, while Sotheby's sale was considered acceptable if not good.

The Telegraph reports
The trials and tribulations of the Old Master market were played out under the glare of the auction room spotlight in London last week, where the three main salerooms accumulated just over £50 million in five auctions. This time last year, the equivalent sales made £79 million, and two years ago, £90 million. On an annual basis, Old Master sales at auction in London have fallen by 41.4 per cent from £210 million in 2014, to £123 million this year.

All, though, is not lost. After dismal sales at Bonhams, where only one third of the lots sold, and Christie’s, where a £6. 4 million total must have been one of the lowest in living memory, Sotheby’s came to the rescue with a £22.6 million sale that, while not a triumph, was at least respectable.

For Christie’s, it was the failure of the highest estimated lots that hurt most. An enchanting, Durer-inspired painting on vellum of a wide-eyed hare in a wonderland of plants and insects by Hans Hoffmann was similar to another which sold 14 years ago for £1.64 million to the J Paul Getty Museum, but its estimate of £4 million proved a step too far for buyers.

Also affecting Christie’s auction total was the withdrawal of a 15th century tondo of the Virgin and Child by the Netherlandish master, Hans Memling, which had been estimated at £2.5 million. The painting was sold privately before the auction, said Christie’s.

Heading the auction instead was one of many versions of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Bird Trap which found just one bidder to meet its £1 million estimate. Brueghel prices, previously fuelled by Russian and Asian interest, are on hold. Last week Russians seemed to have lowered their sights and were buying lower valued paintings from the workshops or studios of Brueghel and Joos van Cleve. Asian bidding was also sparse, with one buyer picking up a late Joshua Reynolds society portrait.

Attracting more competition was a dramatic scene from Virgil’s Aeneid by the Baroque painter, Pietro Testa. This painting had been offered and unsold in New York in two years ago with a $3 million estimate. Now with a drastically reduced estimate of £300,000 ($470,000), it was pursued by London art advisor Hugo Nathan before selling to a telephone bidder for a record £746,500. Undeterred, Nathan went on to buy a fantastical composition by the French rococo painter, Charles-Antoine Coypel, for a double estimate £506,500. In both cases, said Nathan, the estimates were set reasonably and attracted competition – the key to holding a good auction.

Sotheby’s exceeded Christie’s meagre total with its first eight lots. Adopting a chronological format, these included an early example of Netherlandish Renaissance painting – a perfectly preserved Virgin and Child by Jan Gossaert which sold for a record £4.6 million – and a taste of the arrival of the early Renaissance in Paris in the mid 15th century with an altar panel depicting the arrest of Christ. Heavily influenced by Rogier van der Weyden, it is thought to have been painted by one AndrĂ© d’Ypres. More will be revealed no doubt by the Louvre Museum which bought the panel after heavy competition for £965,000.

Other features of the sale were the strong prices for Italian devotional gold ground paintings – fast becoming a fashion accessory, and largely absent from Christie’s – and for the best baroque paintings. One of these, Sebastiano Ricci’s Titianesque Holy Family with John the Baptist more than doubled the price it fetched 10 years ago, selling to London dealer Danny Katz for £389,000.

For British art, results were up and down. The classic chiaroscuro in Joseph Wright of Derby’s Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno excited a number of bidders who, in spite of its questionable condition, ran it far above a £100,000 estimate to £665,000. But two portraits by van Dyck, one which had been enlarged at a later date, failed to sell amidst concerns that too many van Dycks have been “discovered” in recent years to be true. There were also concerns about exactly how many versions of Constable’s The Lock there are. Sotheby’s example, which fetched a disappointing £9.1 million after only one serious bid, pales in comparison with another version which sold three years ago for £22.4 million.

This element of uncertainty, about how many versions there are of something, and constant changes of opinions in academic circles about authorship, is, apart from the problem of supply, one of the things that holds back the Old Master market. Whereas newly rich buyers can storm the better documented modern and contemporary markets with confidence, the Old Master field contains many more pitfalls for the unwary and under-informed.
Source: The Telegraph

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