Category: Auctions

'art world ambulance chasing'

February 5 2018

Image of 'art world ambulance chasing'

Picture: via TAN, La Salle University's 'The Tomb of Virgil' by Hubert Robert

The news that La Salle University is to sell 46 works of art from its museum - about a third of the art on display - has prompted an excoriating article in The Art Newspaper from Brian Allen, a former US museum director. He lays some of the blame on the auction houses willing to help museums deaccession works:

It seems to me that the auction houses are equally culpable. They are training their sights on financially pressed colleges and museums as part of their business development strategies. This is art-world ambulance chasing.

Christie's top ten Old Master sales

February 5 2018

Image of Christie's top ten Old Master sales

Picture: Norton Simon Museum

There's a great 'top ten' piece on Christie's site - even auction houses go in for clickbait - listing their most significant Old Master sales over the last 251 years. Naturally, the sale of the Salvator Mundi is top of the list. But two other tales stand out. First, the day Norton Simon tried to bid on Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist's Son, Titus (above):

Prior to the introduction of the paddle system, buyers were allowed to choose their own bidding signals. The American industrialist and collector Norton Simon sent a letter to Christie’s before the sale of the Rembrandt, explaining, ‘If he is sitting he is bidding; if he stands he has stopped bidding. If he sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is bidding again until he stands up again.’ Unfortunately, Chance misinterpreted Simon’s sitting and finger-raising, and sold the work to Marlborough Fine Art in London for 700,000 guineas. 

When the hammer came down, the enraged collector approached Chance’s rostrum and demanded that bidding be reopened. Simon went on to win the auction, spending an additional 60,000 guineas to secure the work. But if the industrialist’s obscure bidding tactics were intended to help him hide from press attention, he now became the focus of the sale. When the painting made the front cover of Time  magazine that year, Simon became an unlikely star. Today the portrait hangs in Simon’s museum in Pasadena, California.

And then a postscript to the sale of the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare from Stowe in 1848:

In another twist of fate, Thomas Woods, the son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, was so inspired by the sale that he decided to become an auctioneer. In 1859 Woods joined George Christie and William Manson as a partner in their firm, creating Christie, Manson & Woods — still the official name for Christie’s.

Christie's NY Old Master drawings

January 31 2018

Image of Christie's NY Old Master drawings

Picture: Christie's

The top lot in Christie's New York Old Master drawings sale was a watercolour by Turner, Lake Lucerne from Brennan, which made $.109m (inc premium). A lot which exceeded its estimate dramatically was Jupiter handing a newborn boy to Diana by Perino del Vaga, a pupil of Raphael; this made $708,000 against an estimate of $150k-$200k. The sale totaled $3.9m.

Guercino discovery in the UK

January 31 2018

Image of Guercino discovery in the UK

Picture: Cheffins

A previously unknown depiction of an Italian Mastiff has been attributed to Guercino, after it was discovered by a regional UK auction house. Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph reports:

The owners, whose forbears made the Grand Tour of Italy in 1850, were completely unaware who the painting was by until a routine valuation visit by Cheffins auctioneers from Cambridge started an investigative ball rolling.

Cheffins called in their Old Master paintings consultant, John Somerville, a former specialist at Sotheby’s, who recognised the painting as ‘Bolognese School’ Baroque, but needed corroboration for an attribution to Guercino as only one dog portrait by the artist is known.

That painting, a brindle mastiff with the Aldrovandi family coat of arms on its collar, was sold in 1972 for the then princely sum of £110,000  to the Norton Simon Museum in America where it hangs today. The Cheffins painting is of a bull mastiff, or, more correctly in Italian, a Cane Corso.

The picture will be offered on 7th March, with an estimate of £80k-£120k.

Charles I's Titian in New York

January 22 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Another picture at Sotheby's in New York is this 6ft tall religious picture by Titian and his workshop, of St Margaret. It once belonged to Charles I, and when valued after his death was deemed to be worth more (at £100) than Leonardo's Salvator Mundi (at £30). Today the estimate is (by comparison with the Leonardo) a modest $2m-$3m.

As The Guardian reports, it was offered to a plumber, in part exchange for repairs carried out at the royal palaces during the Cromwellian regime. 

It's one of two versions, the other is in the Prado.

How not to pack a drawing

January 15 2018

Image of How not to pack a drawing

Picture: Crispian Riley-Smith

The drawings dealer Crispian Riley-Smith has shown on Twitter what happens when an auction house doesn't pack artworks properly. Happily, after a little conservation, the damage is less obvious. 

Sotheby's New York Old Master sales

January 8 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's New York Old Master catalogues are online; with many wonderful things available to see. I'll write more about what's on offer soon. But here is the Evening sale, here is the Day sale, and here is the special catalogue for the collection of Otto Naumann, the Obi-Wan of the Old Master dealers, who is retiring from the business. 

Reviews of the London Old Master sales

December 13 2017

Image of Reviews of the London Old Master sales

Picture: Christie's

I wrote a short review of the London Old Master sales for The Art Newspaper, which is here. Among the pictures I focused on was a Portrait of Petronella Buys by Rembrandt (above), which sold at Christie's for £3.4m. In his review for The Telegraph, Colin Gleadell managed to track down the name of the buyer; the Leiden Collection of Thomas Kaplan. 

Colin and I are in agreement that the Old Master market now has a decided spring in its step, post the Salvator Mundi sale. I hope finally we can now move on from the 'Old Master market is dead' myth. 


Who bought the Salvator Mundi? (ctd.)

December 12 2017

Image of Who bought the Salvator Mundi? (ctd.)

Picture: via Twitter

So this much we know for sure; the picture has 'been acquired' by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as the museum has confirmed, and will go on display there. But who actually bought the picture? Christie's statement says:

Christie’s can confirm that the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi is acquiring ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci.

...'is acquiring' is interesting wording, and implies a break in ownership between the Christie's sale and now. As I mentioned below, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported that the picture was bought by the Saudis. The Times first mentioned the name of Prince Bader bin Abdullah, but the WSJ believes he was acting for the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and also that the picture has been gifted to the Louvre Abu Dhabi by him.

But CNN has reported that the painting was not a gift, and was definitely bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and that the Saudis were just intermediaries. CNN published a statement by the Saudi embassy in Washington:

"His Highness Prince Badr, as a friendly supporter of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, attended its opening ceremony on November 8th and was subsequently asked by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to act as an intermediary purchaser for the piece."

Such mystery is typical of anything related to Leonardo da Vinci, but the pattern of events is unusual in the art world. I'm told that the US government believes that Mohammed bin Salman was indeed the buyer at Christie's. But why would the Saudi Crown Prince, who is busy shaking up Saudi Arabia in the most dramatic way for decades, be used as an intermediary to buy a picture of Christ for a museum in another country? Was he looking for a commission? Of course not. And are we to believe that the Louvre Abu Dhabi didn't have the cash or an account with Christie's? Again, of course not.

So what's going on. I'm speculating, but I wonder if the bidding war for this picture was due to a battle for cultural supremacy between the Emiratis (with their Louvre Abu Dhabi) and the Qataris (with their less glamorous sounding Qatar Museums Authority).

Both countries have been on buying sprees, as they seek to create world class museums from scratch. The Qataris have set many price records on their buying spree, such as the reported $250m for Cezanne's Card Players. But what might have given the battle for Salvator Mundi added zing is the diplomatic falling out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both are majority Sunni nations, but the Qataris have been accused of being more aligned with (Shia) Iran, and have also irked the Saudis through their media outlets such as Al Jazeera. Amidst all this, the UAE are important allies for Saudi Arabia and their energetic new Crown Prince.

But this is all guesswork, so don't pay it much attention. Maybe the underbidders were connected to an Asian museum, as has been speculated. Either way, we're seeing a return to the sort of national bidding wars for great art that defined collecting in the 17th Century. 

Wright's 'Academy by Lamplight' at Sotheby's (ctd.)

December 6 2017

Image of Wright's 'Academy by Lamplight' at Sotheby's (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's set a new auction record for Joseph Wright of Derby, selling his Academy by Lamplight for £7.26m (against an estimate of £2.5m-£3.5m).

A real fake!

November 21 2017

Image of A real fake!

Picture: A P Diemen auctions

A genuine, signed Han Van Meegeren (the forger of all those Vermeers in the 1930s and 40s) is on sale in Amsterdam, with an estimate of just 500-700 Euros. It was the fact that nobody valued his genuine paintings which made Van Meegeren turn to forgery. 

London Old Master sales

November 21 2017

Image of London Old Master sales

Picture: Sotheby's

The December London Old Master sale catalogues are online. Sotheby's Evening sale here, Day sale here. Christie's Evening here, day here. Bonhams here. Sotheby's are offering the above late Titian portrait - who's an old friend from my London dealing days - at £1m-£1.5m. I'm looking forward to seeing him again.

'Salvator Mundi' - the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction

November 16 2017

Image of 'Salvator Mundi' - the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art

It's 1am here in the UK and I've just witnessed the most extraordinary moment of auction drama at Christie's New York (via Facebook live). Leonardo's Salvator Mundi has sold for £400m hammer, or $450m with fees.

The lot was first announced as 'selling' at $80m, which I presume represents the level of the guarantee. Bidding was then brisk to the high $100ms, before, to audible gasps in the room, the picture broke through the $200m mark. Thereafter it was a battle between two phone bidders. The winning bidder kept making unilateral bids way above the usual bidding increments. Their final gambit was to announce, with the bidding at $370m, that their next bid was $400m. This finally knocked the competition out, and - after 19 minutes - the hammer came down. Whoever it was evidently has some serious cash to burn.

And so an Old Master painting has become the most expensive artwork ever sold. It will have completely overshadowed everything else in the sale. The next lot, a Basquiat (usually a high point for contemporary sales) bought in as the room buzzed with Leonardo chatter. Will the sale prompt people to now look anew at Old Masters? Maybe. It will surely end for good now the tired clicheé that the Old Master market is dead. 

Some immediate thoughts. First, the guarantor has made a few quid, and deserves it - guaranteeing that picture at this stage in its history (post rediscovery, and in the midst of an ugly legal battle between the vendor and his agent) was quite a risk. Second, the vendor - Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev - has made about $180m. He's in the midst of a legal battle with the person he bought the picture from, an art agent called Yves Bouvier, alleging that he was over-charged (it has been reported that Bouvier bought it from Sotheby's for about $80m, and sold it to Rybolovlev for about $125m - allegedly). I'm not sure how that over-charging allegation plays out now.

Third, Christie's just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly - the best piece of art marketing I've ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN congratulates them all. 

Finally, despite the fact that this picture enjoyed near universal endorsement from Leonardo scholars, and had a weight of other technical and historical evidence behind it, there was a tendency in many quarters to be sniffy about it. I found this puzzling - not just because (for what it's worth) I believed in the picture myself - since the determination amongst some to criticise the picture was in inverse proportion to their art historical expertise. It sometimes seems that the more famous the artist, the more people assume they are an expert in them. And with Leonardo being the most famous of them all, the armchair connoisseurs have been having a field day these last few weeks.

Anyway, I'm going to bed. What a ride. I was sure the picture would sell, but never imagined it would make this much. We must all now wonder where the picture is going to end up next. 

Re-discovered Lawrence portrait in Edinburgh

November 15 2017

Video: Lyon & Turnbull

The Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have an unfinished portrait of a young girl by Sir Thomas Lawrence in their next sale. It's an early work, and can be dated to c.1790. The estimate is £30k-£50k, and the catalogue entry is here. [Disclaimer, I'm on the board of L&T!]

Christie's New York Old Master sale

November 1 2017

Image of Christie's New York Old Master sale

Picture: Christie's

The top lot of Christie's fall Old Master sale in New York was a self-portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (above), which made $1.5m against an estimate of $600k-$800k. A head of St John the Baptist by Albrecht Bouts made $516k, while a $12k-$18k Studio of Van Dyck portrait raced away to $125k. There were some reasonably strong prices for British 18thC portraiture, including $75k for this Hudson, and $137k for this Reynolds, estimated at $20k-$30k. The rest of the sold lots are here

Monet landscapes at Sotheby's

October 30 2017

Video: Sotheby's

Another good auction house short video - this time on Monet, featuring Sotheby's Simon Stock 

Newly discovered £2m-£3m Constable at Sotheby's

October 29 2017

Image of Newly discovered £2m-£3m Constable at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's will sell in their London Old Master sale this December a newly discovered painting by John Constable, with an estimate of £2m-£3m. The picture, Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood, was painting between 1814-17. Says Sotheby's specialist Julian Gascoigne:

Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood was long mistakenly thought to be by Ramsay Richard Reinagle (1775–1862), a friend and contemporary of Constable’s, but recent scientific analysis and up-to-date connoisseurship has unanimously returned the work to its rightful place among the canon of the great master’s work and established beyond doubt its true authorship. It is without question one of the most exciting and important additions to Constable’s oeuvre to have emerged in the last 50 years.”

More here

Queueing for Leonardo (Ctd.)

October 26 2017

Image of Queueing for Leonardo (Ctd.)

Picture: TAN 

Back in 2011 I often reported on the queues to get into the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Now there are Leonardo queues in London again (reports The Art Newspaper) to see Salvator Mundi at Christie's. 

Leonardo's 'Salvator Mundi' to be sold at Christie's

October 10 2017

Image of Leonardo's 'Salvator Mundi' to be sold at Christie's

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art.

Big news (via Eileen Kinsella at ArtNet) - the recently discovered 'Salvator Mundi' by Leonardo da Vinci is to be sold by Christie's in New York. The painting had been acquired by the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2013 for a reported $127.5m. The painting became a matter of some controversy, however, when the Russian discovered that the price he paid included a mark up of between $40m and $50m. Rybolovlev is currently suing his former art adviser, Yves Bouvier.

Rybolovlev appears to have fallen out of love with much of his art collection. He has begun to sell a number of 20th Century works through Christie's, some of which have earned him hefty losses. Earlier this year I had speculated on whether he would also soon sell his Leonardo.

Christie's are evidently pushing the boat out for the Leonardo sale - they're including it not in an Old Master sale, but a modern and contemporary sale. The painting will carry an estimate of $100m. Evidently, buy eschewing the Old Master auction, Christie's are signalling that it's not likely to be bought by any of the usual Old Master collectors, or even museums. The money is in the contemporary end of the market, so that's where they'll pitch the picture. If they sell the painting for something close to that amount, it will be a tremendous coup - one of the auctioneering feats of the century so far. This is, after all, a recent discovery, which has been the subject of some unjustly deserved but unwelcome publicity, and was last on the market only five years ago. In usual Old Master terms, that's not a good start. 

For more on the picture's history, put 'Salvator Mundi' into AHN's search box. I first saw it in 2011, and was impressed. It's now going on a worldwide tour.

$78m Bacon fails to sell

October 9 2017

Video: Christie's

Does this mean anything? A Francis Bacon 'Pope' painting failed to sell at Christie's contemporary and modern evening sale in London last week. The picture had been hailed as a discovery when unveiled to the press last month, having not been exhibited for 45 years. The catalogue carried the mystical 'estimate on request', but in The Guardian, Christie's boss Jussi Pylkkänen said:

“We’re talking about £60m,” says Pylkkänen. That’s actually quite a bit less than Bacon’s record of £89.3m for Three Studies of Lucian Freud, so the estimate may be exceeded if bidders get excited enough by the painting’s intense combination of aesthetic and human drama.

“It’s got all the elements that collectors are looking for,” says Pylkkänen.

Still, as Artnet News says, the sale was 'Christie’s second highest total for a contemporary art sale in Europe, and the highest ever for Frieze Week.' A Hirst at £1.2m - £1.8m failed to sell. A Basquiat 'Red Skull' made £16.5m. A Doig made £15m. An excellent Auerbach painting after Rubens' 'Samson & Delilah' made £3.7m against an estimate of £1.8m-£2.5m. 

Incidentally, here's a piece in the FT on whether you should buy art as an investment, quoting yours truly saying 'nope'.

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