New York Old Master sales (ctd.)

February 6 2023

Image of New York Old Master sales (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

I've been meaning to write something about the Old Master auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York. The Van Dyck I liked so much made $3m. Eileen Kinsella has pretty much all the news covered on ArtNet:

The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

It's nice to see some positive news coverage about the Old Master market for a change. I added up the sale totals from both Christie's and Sotheby's major Old Master sales in New York over the last five years, and it does indeed look like the figures from last week show an upward trend. Although a caveat here is that Christie's keep moved their sale around quite bit, partly affected by the pandemic. Sotheby's sales were all in January.

  • 2023 Christie’s (Jan) $64.5m Sotheby's $91m Total $155.5m
  • 2022 Christie’s (June) $35.1m Sotheby’s $98.6m Total $133.7m
  • 2021 Christie’s (April) $20.8m Sotheby’s $122m Total $142.8m
  • 2020 Christie’s (Oct) $26.1m Sotheby’s $70.7m Total $96.8m
  • 2019 Christie’s (May) $48.3m Sotheby’s $64m Total $112.3m

I also heard positive things from Old Master dealers at the Winter Show fair at the Armoury. That said, I doubt we can expect the 'Old Masters are in decline' narrative to shift from media outlets like the New York Times anytime soon. The NYT has not reported on the sale results, despite its very gloomy pre-sale assessment, here.

As regular readers will know, in my view the comparison with the contemporary art market is unfair. That sector is dominated by buying as speculation, and even within the contemporary market, there are areas of success and failure, against which the plodding reliability of Old Masters can be made to look attractive. Compare the Old Master sales to NFTs, for example, and you could present a very different view of the merits of investing in old art versus new.

There is one other point that needs to be made about the Old Master market, and this concerns estimates. I keep seeing reports that Old Master sales were 'lacklustre' or 'muted', because prices did not soar away above estimates. But this misunderstands the purpose of estimates these days. As a guide to what a sale will make overall, they are pointless. Estimates are part of the selling process, not an unbiased view of a picture's value. They represent the constant balance auctioneers have to strike between seller's expectations and buyer's appetites.

For example, the Rubens sold by Sotheby's in New York from the Fisch Davidson collection made $23.5m hammer price, and $26.9m with premium. But the estimate was $25m-$35m. So most observers might say, it failed to live up to expectations. But that's wrong, for the very high estimate itself represented a record for a Rubens of this kind, and would have been part of the auction houses' marketing, when it came to finding an irrevocable bidder (which is how this picture was sold). Imagine trying to persuade someone to place a pre-sale irrevocable bid on a painting before a sale if the estimate is low, as a way of getting potential bidders interested. Now, you might say, that's an unorthodox way to sell a picture. But remember, a sale is a sale. The days of auction houses simply taking items from a consignor, putting them on a wall, and waiting for buyers to come along and bid are long gone - and that's true even in the contemporary world, where the whole process of guarantees comes from.

Similarly, I've seen it reported that Christie's offering of the Safra collection of Old Masters was 'fell short of expectations', because it made only $14.7m total hammer price ($18.5m with fees), against a pre-sale estimate of $19.2m-$28.8m. However, the Safra sale was a 'no reserve' sale, which meant that in theory the Turner estimated at $1.5m could sell for $1. In other words, in this case, the estimates were designed to reflect the potential bargains on offer, so that potential bidders could see a $1.5m Turner, and think that buying it for anything less than $1.5m was bargain. If the Old Master market really was in decline, then having a sale with no reserves would have exposed that. Instead, everything sold pretty well.

By my count, 574 works in the Old Master category (not including drawings) were sold in the New York sales. It was the first time since 2015 that Christie's had their sales in the same week as Sotheby's. You could say that saturating the market with such a large number of works in one sale week represented a risk to the Old Master sector. And yet they all made solid prices. There's life in this market yet.

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