London Old Master sales (ctd.)

July 8 2017

Image of London Old Master sales (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Before the Old Master auctions this week, I wrote in The Art Newspaper that:

The fracturing of the New York Old Master auction market with Christie’s moving away from the traditional major sales in January has given London a chance to become once again the world’s Old Master capital. This year, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have produced formidable catalogues for their July sales. 

Did the final sale tallies suggest that London was about to power ahead as the world's Old Master capital? For this year, at least, yes; if we compare the major annual sales of both houses in both cities, then this year London comes out on top. Last year, however, the picture is more mixed. So there's no clear trend. Here are the numbers for the last two years:


  • Sotheby's NY Jan '17 $27.2m
  • Sotheby's NY Jan '16 $53m (plus Taubman OMPs, $24m)
  • Sotheby's Lon July '17 £52.5m
  • Sotheby's Lon July '16 £16.4m
  • Christie's NY April '17 $32m
  • Christie's NY April '16  $30m
  • Christie's Lon July '17 £43.8m
  • Christie's Lon July '16 £65.3m


As ever the overall sale totals depend heavily on single lots, so trying to prove my hypothesis is largely pointless. At Sotheby's this year an £18.5m Turner helped their sale total to £52m, while at Christie's it was a £26.2m Guardi which brought their total to £43.8m. Take out those two lots, and you can see that Sotheby's had the stronger sale overall, as well as the higher total.

That said, when the Turner (a View of Ehrenbreitstein) sold in the room at Sotheby's, hammering at £17m, there was a great deal of murmering. Had people expected it to sell for more? Perhaps, given the previous two large-scale and important Turners sold by Sotheby's; Rome from Mount Aventine had made £30.3m against an estimate of £15m-£20m, while Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino made £29.7m from an estimate of £12m to £18m. That said, it would be uncontroversial to say that a German subject, is less attractive to the market than one of Turner's Venetian or Roman scenes. In the end, the buyer was a guarantor, who had been announced at the last minute. They were evidently prepared to pay more than the £15m reserve, for before the lot it was announced that the estimate (and thus I presume the reserve) was being raised to £17m. It appears that the guarantor bought the painting, being the only bidder.

It was odd to see how the sale of the Turner effected the auction. It was not the last lot of the sale, as is often the case with star lots, but lot 21 (of 70), and news of the changed estimate seemed to upset the room somewhat, causing a stir and much talking. What had until then been a strong and focused sale suddenly seemed to suffer from wandering attentions. 

Auctioneer Harry Dalmeny battled gamely on, however, and in the end the auction achieved Sotheby's highest ever sell-through rate, with 85.3% sold by lot. That said, the sale total of £52.5m (with premium) means that the pre-sale estimate (without premium) of the Evening Sale of £48.4m - £73.5m (which at made it potentially Sotheby's most valuable Old Master sale ever) was not exceeded.

The Christie's evening sale was 75% sold by lot, but the Guardi ('The Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi') saw much stiffer competition than the Turner, with bidding starting at £12m before hammering at £23.25m (£26.2m with premium). This price compares favourably to the value of the picture's 'pendant', View of the Rialto Bridge, from the Fondamenta del Carbon, which had sold at Sotheby's in 2011 for £26.7m (inc premium). The Guardi was the most expensive Old Master sold at auction so far this year, and comes on top of Christie's also taking that honour last year, with the Rubens of Lot and his Daughters, which sold for £44m.

Whoever we think might be coming on top at the moment between Christie's and Sotheby's, or London and New York, I think the main point is that the Old Master market is still showing strong signs of health. It is not only plodding on as it always has done, but with strong prices for unusual pictures and rare masterpieces, is even now showing signs of competing well with other more usually dominant sectors.

For example, Sotheby's recently decided to put a still-life into a sale of 20th and 21st Century works. The exquisite still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder made £2.9m (est. £2m-£3m) and was the top lot of the sale, beating the likes of Lucian Freud and Joan Miro. It was a brave call by Sotheby's, and it paid off. And I'm not the only one who thinks that Old Masters might be at something of a turning point.

Consider, for example, another strong performer at Sotheby's evening sale, the portrait of Anne of Hungary's court 'fool', by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. This was on one level a rather average portrait, of an old woman in a curious costume by a 16th Century artist not many people have heard of. Not so long ago it might have done well to reach £50k in a day sale. But now the market really responds to quirky and fascinating objects, which this was, and the picture made £2.16m (and was underbid by an online bidder, merilly clicking away from the hundreds of thousands).

Another interesting sign of the market's health was the recent reappearance (or at least, recent in Old Master market terms) of two pictures that had formed part of a collection put together by a client of the Old Master dealer Luca Baroni. These were a Murillo Ecce Homo, and a Tiepolo portrait of a lady as Flora. The Murillo, a really lovely picture in good condition, sold for £2.7m (inc. premium) having made £2.47m at Christie's in 2005. The Tiepolo sold this time for £2.4m, having made £2.8m at Christie's in 2008. In other words, the collector will have lost money on these pictures, but not a great deal, and that's actually not as bad as it sounds. Normally, the market responds badly to pictures that reappear at auction even over a decade, and the fact that these pictures performed as they did is, I think, a good sign. we must also consider than when the Tiepolo sold at Christie's in 2008 it was a 'fresh' discovery estimated more enticingly at £700k-£900k, and was covered in old varnish and dirt. In other words, it was perfect for the trade to bid on, whereas this time, with the picture cleaned and more strongly estimated only private buyers were likely to bid. By the way, we mustn't worry to much for the vendor losing some money on these paintings, for the same collector (I am told) is doing handsomely enough on the sale of their Flinck portrait, which sold in New York in April for $10m, having been bough in London in 2011 for £2.3m. 

We should feel far more concerned for the owner of a portrait by Allan Ramsay of Anne, Lady North, which failed to sell at Christie's Evening Sale. This was estimated at £150,000-£250,000, having sold for £421,250 in 2008 at a Christie's day sale, where its estimate was just £15k-£20k. Although it's a decent enough portrait, it doesn't I think have the wow factor that would make it a picture able to sustain a £421k value at auction. I think we must view the 2008 sale as something of a fluke. But again we must remember that in 2008 the picture was enticingly dirty, and attractive enough for the trade to bid on, who, having cleaned the painting could then re-present it and justify a profit. I think the main thing that this Ramsay shows is that valuing old paintings is very difficult, and that selling at auction is always something of a lottery.

I was glad to a see two newly discovered Van Dycks sell well at Christie's, a head study and a large St Sebastian (£1.92m). I couldn't get my head round a portrait of an old man, catalogued as 'attributed to Rembrandt', which sold for £2.1m. If it's by Rembrandt, then it's worth far more. If not, far less (that lottery again). What puzzled me as well was the absence of more than one big name supporters of the attribution. From the catalogue note you'd think Prof Ernst van der Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project had never considered the painting, when in fact he had, and without it seems much enthusiasm. The painting was being sold by a private collector.

I had meant this post to look at many more pictures, as well as the drawings and Old Master paintings 'day sales', but it's 1am and tomorrow we go on holiday! The drawings sales were strong at both Sotheby's and Christie's, but the day sales were very patchy. More on this when I get back. Bon vacances!

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.