December 3 2014

Image of 2.5%

Picture: Christie's

The total for last night's Old Master sale at Christie's was £13.9m, which is about 2.5% of the total for their most recent evening Modern & Contemporary sale. For the small change found down the back of a Koons sofa, you could have bought, amongst other things, a portrait by Van Dyck which formerly belonged to King Charles I (above, £2.8m, all prices inc. premium), a Willem van de Velde seascape (£2.2m), and a Venetian view by Canaletto (£1.3m). All good musum level stuff. But who am I kidding in even making such a comparison...

The above mentioned Van Dyck was a portrait of the musician, Hendrick Liberti. One of two known versions (the other is in Munich), I suspect it must be the first. The condition was a little problematic in parts, especially the background and some of the dark glazes in areas such as the hair and hands. Much of the drapery was covered by layers of uncleaned, older varnish. In conservation lingo, this is known as a 'porthole clean', when someone just cleans the obvious bits like the head and hands. In this case, we must be thankful that whoever did that didn't go further.

The newly discovered Van Dyck head study (which I mentioned here last month) made £494,500, which figure puts into perspective the £300,000-£500,000 estimate at which a similar Van Dyck head study (from the same series of Brussels Magistrates portraits of the early 1630s) failed to sell earlier this year (the one that was discovered on the Antiques Roadshow, illustrated here).

Personally, I preferred the modeling of the head and the characterisation of the 'Roadshow' picture. But the picture sold yesterday had the advantage of being in much better condition, and consequently appeared much better painted, full of virtuoso strokes. It was also 'fresh' to the market - in the sense that it hadn't been turned into too much of a news story. Sometimes this can damage a picture's prospects at auction, at least in the Old Master world.

Why? Because the Old Master market is, like many markets, underpinned by dealers (despite, some might say, the best efforts of the auction houses to kill off independent dealers). If a picture is presented at auction with great fanfare, and freshly cleaned, then there's little prospect of a dealer bidding on it for stock and prepared to hold it for a number of years, because there's no way they can add value. So at the time of the auction, the only people who might have bid on the 'Roadshow' picture were private collectors who were looking for a Van Dyck head study at that particular moment, and with the ready cash to pay for it within 30 days. And you can take it from me that there's not many people like that around.

Therefore - and slightly paradoxically perhaps - the picture that sold yesterday benefited from having a great deal of later over-paint still on it (such as in the background and the clothing, which was added at a later date, the concept of the 'unfinished' being a relatively new aesthetic trend). As a commercial prospect it's much more enticing to the trade, because they can buy it, take off the over-paint, and restore it to how Van Dyck left it (which will be something like the similar study in the Ashmolean museum). Obviously, there's a risk in doing this, as the picture might in fact be knackered beneath (though I doubt it). They might even have this done in time for the great art fair at Maastricht. Now, I don't know for sure that it was bought by the trade, but I can guarantee you some in the trade would have bid on it. And at auction, maximising the price is (usually) all about maximising the number of bidders.

Finally, you might ask, why was the 'Roadshow' discovery not put into the auction with all its overpaint left on? And the answer to that is quite simple; in that case, the overpaint - and dirt and old varnish - were so completely disfiguring that it wasn't actually possible to see (at least not to non-Van Dyck nerds like me) that the picture was by Van Dyck at all. So it had to be cleaned. You can see what it used to look like here. It'll sell, one day...

Anyway, this review of yesterday's sale prices has turned into an impromptu guide to how the market in newly discovered Van Dyck paintings works. Other notable sales last night included a fine portrait by Batoni which made £344k, and a portrait of a young boy by Joos van Cleve. Sotheby's has the weightier sale this time round - their Turner notwithstanding - and I expect well see a higher overall total at their sale tonight. It might even reach a full five percent of that Christie's contemporary sale.

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