Christie's Old Master evening sale

December 4 2012

Image of Christie's Old Master evening sale

Picture: BG

Bit of a flat one this. Christie's most recent Old Master auctions in London totalled £95m, but tonight's sale limped home at just £11.5m. December sales usually play second fiddle to the July auctions, but there's no denying that this evening's was rather weak.

I'm not entirely sure why. The quality of the pictures on offer wasn't bad, the estimates weren't crazy, and the cataloguing was the usual high standard for a Christie's evening sale. There were no knockout lots though. The top lot by value was a £2m Jordaens (inc. premium).

However, by my counting some 25 of the 54 lots failed to sell, and nothing kills the atmosphere in an auction room quicker than a run of bought in pictures. At one point there were 8 consecutive failures. The buy-ins included what we thought was a rather fine Italian-period Van Dyck, which we had been tempted to bid on [below].

Happily, the British pictures on offer performed well. A not stellar Reynolds made £211k, three head studies by Lawrence made £121k, while a fine Gainsborough copy after Van Dyck made £265k. And the second highest price of the evening was for a rare night scene by Wright of Derby, which made £914,850 [above]. This delightful picture had recently been discovered in a US auction (I'm told) for peanuts. It was an epic find by probably the greatest sleeper-hunter of our time (who is very discrete, so I can't name him).

Tomorrow evening's Sotheby's sale will most likely beat the Christie's total, especially if they sell their £10m-£15m Raphael drawing, and the £5m-£7m Jan Steen.

Update - a reader writes:

I can tell you part of the reason the sale fell flat tonight - picture flipping.  At least 16 paintings had been on the market in the last 15 years, and only 5 of them sold.  The market is smart enough to figure out that the Flinck sold 7 months ago at Dobiaschofsky, even if it wasn't spelled out in the catalogue, and wasn't going to pay a premium to a sleeper hunter who overpaid for a work in mediocre condition.  Almost without exception, the Dutch pictures were recycled, mediocre examples of the artists' work.  As something of a sleeper hunter myself, my rules are a) if it can be found, properly attributed, on Artnet, it will make a fair price the first time around regardless of where the auction is or what the estimate is, and b) even if it's not on Artnet, if you can tell during the bidding that at least two dealers are involved as well, it will make a fair price, and it's best to sit back and let it go.  That leads to a pretty low success rate in bidding, but a low failure rate in reselling as well.

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