Normal service resumed at Sotheby's

December 6 2012

Image of Normal service resumed at Sotheby's

Rubbish Picture: BG

After the desultory sale at Christie's on Tuesday, last night's £59m bonanza at Sotheby's brought a sigh of relief from the Old Master world. The headlines will of course focus on the £29.7m raised by the Chatsworth Raphael drawing. But even without that the Sotheby's total was a heartening result, with strong prices throughout the sale. A Jan Steen made £5.6m early on, and helped Sotheby's eclipse Christie's entire total of £11.5m after just 16 lots. Ouch. 13 lots out of 52 failed to sell, against 25 of 54 at Christie's. Ouch again.

One astute reader yesterday blamed the Christie's near 50% buy-in rate with a surfeit of recently sold works, including pictures flipped from one auction to another. There were none of these at Sotheby's, with almost all the lots, as far as I could discern, being relatively fresh to the market and from private sources. It was a well put together sale.

The 17 minute battle for the Raphael drawing was Old Master entertainment at its best, with Henry Wyndham (for me, the finest auctioneer in the business) deftly eliciting bids from four bidders to way past the £15m upper estimate. One bidder dropped out early, shortly after £10m, while another (whom I couldn't see, and was sat at the front) then bid against the drawings specialist Luca Bironi to about £20m (which sum drew gasps from the audience). Just when we thought it was all over, another phone bidder came in to take it up to £26.5m. The bidding had appeared to be stalling at £24.5m, but Wyndham charmed several more bids from the client at the front, as only an Old Etonian could. With premium, the price eclipsed Christie's 2009 sale of another Raphael head study, at £29.2m, and is not only a new Raphael record, but also one for any work of art on paper.

There was applause at the end - a rarity from the hard-bitten Old Master crowd. We normally leave clapping to the modern and contemporary buyers. But yesterday we showed them how to buy art in style.

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