London Old Master sales (ctd.)

December 24 2022

Image of London Old Master sales (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

I promised a review of the London Old Master sales, but it's taken me a while, apologies. The first thing is, I should probably title this post, 'Brexit and the Art Market', because the story of the sales wasn't so much the art, as the economics.

Regular readers will know I began warning about the effects of Brexit on the UK art market back in 2016. And sadly, many of my fears have come to pass. The number of pictures on offer in the London sales tells the story; normally, Christie's would have their two downstairs rooms open for Day Sale pictures, but this time only the smaller room was open. At Sotheby's, we'd normally expect to see the two main rooms uptairs contain works from the Evening Sale, but here again things were different; the first room was given over to the Sir Joseph Hotung collection (albeit very tastefully, with a sort of World of Interiors stage set), while the largest room was almost entirely hung with works coming up in Sotheby's January sale in New York. It's true, the London December sales are secondary to London's July sales, but it's come to something when the best works on offer at both sale rooms are those from a preview of their New York sales.

The talk from those I spoke to was of London feeling the pressure from Paris for lower and mid-level pictures. Hence the thinness of the Day Sale offerings. And this is understandable; if you were a consignor in Europe, would you want to ship your picture to the UK, through customs checks at some expense, and then have a symbol in the catalogue next to your picture telling prospective bidders that they'll have to pay an extra 5% on top of the hammer price (because of the UK's post-Brexit import VAT regime)? Moreover, if you're Sotheby's and Christie's, sourcing Old Master pictures from Europe, would you want the hassle and expense of shipping to London, when you have salerooms in Paris? London probably still makes sense for pictures over £100,000. But under that, it's a different question. 

Customs, incidentally, is a major problem for bringing art into the UK right now. The UK shipper I regularly use has grown so fed up of waiting for hours and hours at UK customs that he's now opened a warehouse and business in Belgium. He does all his European and international shipping from there now, and if he is bringing works into the UK, he gathers as much as he can together in the Belgian warehouse first, and then does one big truck-load, which is better for navigating UK customs delays, rather than smaller, more regular van loads as he used to. Still, last week he tells me was waiting at Folkestone for ten hours. These delays, on top of the red tape, and the import taxes, are really taking a toll on London's ability to source pictures for auction. I'm afraid I find it very depressing, but then I tend to find most things Brexit-related very depressing. 

Anyway, what there was at the December sales did reasonably well, on the whole. The Venus and Adonis attributed to Titian and Studio made just over £11m at Sotheby's, against an estimate of £8m-£12m. A Canaletto of the Grand Canal made £3.6m. The little Constable study I admired before the sale made £289k. The still lifes from the Grasset Collection at Sotheby's sold very well, including a Jan Davidsz. De Heem est. at £1m-£1.5m which made £2.7m. This had been bought at Sotheby's in 1987 for £200,000. In fact, many of the Dutch 17th Century still lifes made solid gains on their recent market history, including a Floris Claesz. van Dijck which made just over £2m, against an estimate of £600k-£800k, and had been sold for £290,000 in 1995. 

On this point, The Art Newspaper had one of those periodic 'the Old Master market is dying' articles, which have been appearing for over a decade now, and which tend to focus on pictures that have lost money in recent auctions. An example in the December sales was a Francesco Trevisani of The Virgin sewing with the Christ Child, which was unsold at £80k-£120k, but which had been bought for £180k in 2007. Results like these, as regular readers will know, don't show that the Old Master market is dying, more that, in covering over 600 years of art, they reflect the changing tastes within it. Dutch 17th Century still life is having a moment right now, but Italian early 18th Century religious art is probably not. 

One of the areas of Old Master art which has been in fashion for some years now, Italian gold ground paintings, still seem to be doing well, such as the 13th Century Bolognese School Crucifixion at Sotheby's, which made £1.72m. Incidentally, I discovered recently that pictures like this, which have no firm attribution, are for some reason not included in the overall Old Master sale totals that make up things like the annual Art Basle Art Market Report (and which the 'dying Old Master market' articles are partly based on). In fact, as far as I understand it, not even the Venus and Adonis Sotheby's sold for over £9m this month will be included, because it is 'Titian and Studio'. It's also worth pointing out that these art market reports don't include major non-auction sales like the Rijksmuseum's purchase of Rembrandt's Standard Bearer for €175m. Another gold ground picture to do well this time round was a Madonna and Child given to Barnaba Agocchiari at Christie's, at £882k, est. £400k-£600k.

Sotheby's sale totalled £32.7m, though that figure includes some 19th Century pictures. The Hotung sale made £29m, which included a little Van Dyck grisaille of the collector Lucas van Uffel, at £504k. Christie's evening sale totalled £13.1m, with their top lot being a Jean-Francois de Troy of The Reading Party, at £2.9m. The next highest was the Van Dyck of Henrietta Maria, which made £2.4m, est. £2m-£4m. There was a long delay at Christie's on the night of the sale as they tried to reach a potential bidder on the phone, but in the end it seems there was only one bidder, and the hammer went down at £2m. The little newly discovered Holbein Portrait of Erasmus made £1.1m. A Van Dyck Crucifixion which was almost sold as not Van Dyck a year ago, but was withdrawn at the last minute, made £327k. I thought this was a bit cheap, for a major Crucifixion by Van Dyck. Perhaps it was held back by some minor condition issues, especially around the seam in the middle, joining the two pieces of canvas together. I'd like to see it cleaned. On the other hand, the Rubens portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia which also almost sold as not by Rubens last year (when I was one of a few people hoping to buy it), was this time withdrawn before the sale. 

In the Day Sales, Christie's made £1.1m, Sotheby's £3.3m. The former's top price was a Venus and Cupid by Pieter Isaacsz, which made £214k (est.£20k-£30k). Sotheby's top seller was a still life by Anna Ruysch, £327k (£50k-£70k). Another Anna Ruysch made £201k (est.£30k-£50k). Anna was sister of the better known Rachel Ruysch, but her works are very rare. Other interesting results included a recently discovered Landseer of a Woodcock, which made £81k (est. £20k-£30k).

I was pleased to see that all of Sotheby's Day Sale pictures had their own catalogue note, which used to be standard practice, but these days has fallen by the wayside (Christie's, for example, did not). I think such notes are crucial if we're going to expect new collectors to get involved with Old Masters, especially since it's through the auction houses that most new collectors will first come into contact with the Old Masters market. Otherwise, it looks as if you're really only hoping to sell to the trade. Perhaps the Christie's high-ups can be persuaded to let the Old Master department employ a few more cataloguers. 

I bought a little picture, but it's too early to reveal what it is. I'm pleased with it though. That's it from me for this year, I hope you all have a good Christmas. See you in 2023. 

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