The first painting to make a million quid

November 20 2014

Image of The first painting to make a million quid

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

This surprised me - the first painting to ever sell for more than a million pounds, in 1970, was an Old Master; Velazquez's Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine anything other than a post-war & contemporary work breaking price records. Richard Cork, who was at the 1970 sale, relives the moment in this article for The Spectator:

The atmosphere was extraordinary. Most observers could not believe that the painting would fetch £1 million. But the bidding, in an auction room that I had never seen so packed and tense, outflew all expectations. It started at £315,000, and took just 130 seconds. After reaching £1 million, the bidding did not slacken. If anything, it strengthened, and eventually shot past £2 million. It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.

Scores of people swarmed around Alec Wildenstein, the 30-year-old dealer who had bought it. He had been sitting in the second row of the auction room and was escorted out by staff. But it took about ten minutes before a way could be found through the packed hall. He was visibly flushed, and at first seemed lost for words except to say that he was ‘very happy’. Then he managed to explain that the purchase realised the dream of his great-grandfather Nathan Wildenstein, who had founded the family firm 95 years before and thought this Pareja portrait was the greatest painting he had ever seen.

Update - A reader provides this valuable information:

To be pedantic, the painting was knocked down for £2,200,000 guineas - those were the days!  For more detail, Agnews, who were one of the underbidders, provided an account in a book they published on their history.  And, to put ther price in context, one could have bought four of these [Van Goghs] for the same price at around the same time and probably a studio's worth of Rothkos.

It has to be said, as far as the saleroom is concerned, the work was exceptional - a undoubted masterpiece by one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, in great condition (unlined), and not on the market since the Regency period (it was owned by the Radnors).

Wildenstein's guff about his great-grandfather was just that, as he had been commissioned by the Met to buy it - against fierce competition from Washington, who still don't have a major Velasquez, and, it was said, The Louvre.

Update II - another great comment comes in:

I too attended the sale of Juan de Pareja; and when I returned to Sotheby's where I was working at the time, I asked people to guess  what it had gone for. I had various offers of £250,000 and some. When I announced the figure; there was an audible sound of collective jaws dropping to the floor.

As a footnote; the final triumph was the discovery of some centimetres of painted canvas that had been folded over the right hand side, which when revealed, altered the balance of the composition to the left and to a state of perfection.

Update III - an economist writes:

Just for comparative purposes the Velasquez sold for about £ 33 million in current prices based on the UK consumer price index.     probably around two thirds of its current value which would complete well with the inflated contemporary art values.

Curiously it is also 33 million dollars if one converted the original purchase price to dollars in 1970 when the pound was around $ 2.40 and applies the United States price index since 1970 but 66 million dollars if valued at British inflation rates.   

Old masters at the top of the market have risen faster than consumer prices in either country but have been outpaced recently by tulip bulbs….. err… contemporary art, the prices of which have less to do with the art than collecting and competition in general spiced with some greed and lots of guff.

While another reader says in terms of buying power, the number is more like:

[...] about £60 million today. Certainly, central London property prices have risen well in excess of 30x during the last 44 years, but that's another planet.

Update IV - a reader points out that there were more expensive pictures sold before, albeit privately:

To be absolutely accurate, this was the first painting to exceed a million sterling at public auction.  It does remain remarkable that not only was the million pound ceiling broken through but the two million pound mark, but the point is that works could have, and indeed did, break the million pound limit in private sales some years before.

In 1967 the National Gallery of Art in Washington paid a reported $5 million for Leonardo’s Ginevra de’Benci – equivalent at the time to around £1.8 million.  More startlingly, in 1969 the Bavarian State Government – on behalf of the Munich Alte Pinakothek – paid a reported nearly £1.5 million for Hals’ full length portrait of Willem van Heythuysen.  Ironically, given they are now substantial collectors, both works came from among dispersals from the collections of the Princes of Liechtenstein.

Update V - Michael Daley from ArtWatch writes:

The Velazquez was not only priciest, but politically a v. hot purchase (at a time when Harlem was very restive). Hoving had the painting, then in fabulous, scarcely ever touched, condition secretly spirited into Wildenstein’s lair until he found the best formulation for the Met’s spin on such a potentially dangerous purchase 

...and while there, he had it secretly restored so that no one every again got to see it in its fabulous condition...the shenanigans were recalled here.

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