London Old Master sales (post-sale)

July 10 2016

Video: Bonhams

I think there were two main stories from last week's London Old Master sales: first, Brexit didn't have as much of an impact on the overall market as some might have feared (as ever, the OMP market just plods along, whatever the economic weather); and second, Christie's are back in play in the Old Master field. Christie's evening sale total was £65.3m (pre-sale estimate £36.4m-£54.9m), compared to Sotheby's £16.4m (est. £20.m-£31.2m). (All sale prices quoted here include premium).

Of course, the greater part of Christie's total was made up of the £44m Rubens, but then we should also consider the major Old Master works that Christie's sold in the previous week as part of their British Art sale, including a £14m Constable and a £3.7m Reynolds. Christie's success marks something of a turnaround in their OMP fortunes - for the last few years they have lagged behind Sotheby's. 

The impact of Brexit will inevitably take some time to be felt in the UK domestic market. As I wrote here for The Art Newspaper, I'm not optimistic. But in the short term it seems the suddenly weaker pound encouraged overseas bidders to keep taking an interest in what London had to offer. For dollar buyers, the exchange rate meant effectively a 15% discount. On major lots that's equivalent to waiving the buyer's premium. I heard one report of a vendor ringing the auction house to demand that their estimate be increased, in light of the weak pound. A sign perhaps of the inflation to come...

One can perhaps also begin to discern the effect of Brexit in the middle market. Some obviously British pictures in the day sales, such as this perfectly nice Lely portrait estimated at £15k-£20k (which one would have expected to sell to domestic buyers) did not attract any bidders. But it's probably too early to tell here.

Anyway, it was overall a heartening series of sales, from which those of us in the Old Master game could take much comfort. Yours truly even managed to sell four pictures - nothing stellar, but enough to keep the show on the road for a wee while longer.

So let's look at some of the indivudal lots. The main story of the week was obviously the Rubens of Lot and his Daughters, which made an impressive £44.8m against an estimate of £20m-£30m. Although I thought the picture would sell, I didn't expect it to do that well. It just goes to show how difficult it is to value Old Masters. Many thought that the subject matter was, in terms of desirability, some way off that of the last major Rubens to break into the £40m category, the Massacre of the Innocents which made £49.5m in 2002. But 14 minutes of bidding demonstrated that people and insitutions are still prepared to pay significant sums for undoubted masterpieces. Another Rubens from the Beit collection, a sketch for Venus Supplicating Jupiter, sold for £1.3m.

Another impressive price at Christie's was the rare complete set of all Four Seasons by Breughel the Younger, which made £6.4m (est. £3m-£5m). This and the £506k (est. £300k-£500k) for yet another version of The Payment of the Tithes showed that the Breughel the Younger market seems to be as strong as ever. I speculated a while ago that a decline of Russian bidders might affect this market, but it seems I am wrong, and someone in the know about these things assures me I am. The only Van Dyck to sell last week did well enough, the previously unknown Portrait of a Lady making £170k, over its estimate of £100k-£150k. A pair of Bellottos in good state made £3.5m (est.£2m-£3m). A William Larkin portrait of lady (below) made an encouraging (for British art lovers) £266k against an estimate of £40k-£60k. This is the sort of Old Master picture which increasingly fits contemporary taste, with its naivety and colouring, and the fact that it's on panel. Some years ago it would most likely have been a Day Sale kind of picture.

One major Old Master name that didn't fare so well at Christie's was Titian, whose full-length portrait of Guidobaldo II delle Rovere failed to sell at £2m-£3m, probably due to its condition. An intriguing 'Dutch School' portrait of a man in a hat painted in c.1655 made £385k - I wonder if we'll soon see it again cleaned, and with an artist's name attached.

I was surprised to see a copy of Caravaggio's Boy Peeling Fruit (above) sell so well at £218,500. I happened to see the original recently (in the Royal Collection) and the picture at Christie's was some way off even being called 'Studio' of Caravaggio, if indeed he had a studio. But marketing a copy, which would normally be catalogued as 'circle of' or 'after', as 'Associate of Caravaggio' perhaps gave the picture an air of being closer to Caravaggio than it really is. The original has a pentiment of a leaf behind the peeled fruit - which presumably would only have emerged through the white drapery after a period of time. In the copy at Christie's that pentiment has itself been copied, but as a kind of smudge or shadow in the drapery, which suggests the copyist didn't really understand what was going on in the original. So one wonders quite how close to Caravaggio the copyist was, even in date. 

Sotheby's established a handsome new record for the work of the French pastellist Liotard, this time for an oil of A Dutch Girl at Breakfast (above), which made £4.4m (est. £4m-£6m). The previous Liotard record was €1.4m in 2012, for a pastel. A Rubens sketch of The Chariot of Apollo showed the market for Rubens' studies is still as strong as ever. Indeed, a pair of putti in Sotheby's day sale selling for £245k (est. £80k-£120k) showed that Rubens seems to be especially favoured at the moment - the two pictures were perfectly nice, but were in fact fragments from a larger picture which had been cut up by a dealer in the mid-18th Century (shame on you, M. Wachters), and much repainted in parts by restorers over the years. Another strong Ribera price (£293k, est. £100k-£150k) at Sotheby's showed that even the most 'boring' religious subject, of a bearded saint looking up and wearing brown (below), can sell well if it's painted by someone as dazzling as Ribera. A recently restituted Jan Brueghel the Elder still life of flowers (seized in by the Nazis in 1939 from Baron Alphonse von Rothschild sold for £3.84m (est. £3m-£5m). A still-life of glasses and fruit by Pieter Claesz was unsold at £1.8m-£2.5m. It does seem that the Dutch 17th C market is softer than it once was. A rather rubbed late-English period Van Dyck portrait of a lady in red didn't sell at £400k-£600k - this picture had been up before in 2012 at Christie's and also failed to sell. Sotheby's sold three out of the four Dominic Serres views of Havana.

Bonhams had one of their best Old Master sales for many years. They sold a good Claude for £722k, and the star of the show, a self-portrait by William Dobson, soared above its £200k-£300k estimate to make £1.1m. In the back of the room I saw the great Waldemar (perhaps the world's biggest Dobson fan) directing a film of the bidding (above). The curiously cheap Ribera I mentioned in an earlier post made £218k (est. £20k-£30k). It would have made more, I am told, but for hesitancy over its mid-WW2 sale history. A London dealer won some strong bidding for an attractive Romney portrait of Elizabeth Burgoyne (below), which made £314k (est. £70k-£100k), and proved that the market for later 18thC 'peaches and cream' English portraiture can still be strong. That said, a portrait of her husband Mr Burgoyne (in just as good condition, and attractive enough in a red jacket) failed to sell at £30k-£50k. The portrait market is very subjective, and value is often all in whether the sitter is good looking or not. Sad, I know - but at least it means that great examples of portrait painting can be had cheaply - a perfectly decent Gainsborough can be yours for £10k if you don't mind it showing an aged old lady.

Some of my Old Master colleagues wondered if the strength of the London sales was due to a transfer of affections by some collectors from the contemporary and modern market - post-Brexit and ahead of the expected economic uncertainty. I doubt it, but here's hoping. And a glimmer of hope might be that, as Ermanno Rivetti reports in The Art Newspaper, the Rubens of Lot and His Daughters was bought by a client dealing with Christie's head of post-war and contemporary art, Frances Outred. If the Rubens was indeed bought by a 'contemporary collector', then that will energise the market somewhat. 

Oh - I must also mention that Sotheby's sold their Lely self-portrait drawing for £869,000, which was a great result.

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