Previous Posts: July 2017

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!

'Portraits of the Civil War'

July 8 2017

Image of 'Portraits of the Civil War'

Picture: Unicorn

The Old Master dealer Angus Haldane has written a new book on the the art of the English Civil War, and it looks excellent. It's available here at the publishers, Unicorn Press.

Rare French royal lions discovered by Christie's (ctd.)

July 8 2017

Video: Christie's

The pair of marble lions by Andre Beauneveu from the tomb of Charles V of France made a healthy £9.3m at Christie's this week. More on the sculpture here.

New Raphael discovery at the Vatican

July 8 2017

Video: Vatican

Conservators cleaning frescoes in the Room of Constantine at the Vatican have discovered that two of the figures were painted by Raphael himself, not his students as was previously believed. The breakthrough came when it was found that two of the figures in the fresco were painted in oil, not the usual paint in wet plaster technique. More in English here

Channelling Jean-Luc Goddard

July 8 2017

Video: BG

The Deputy Editor greatly enjoyed her time at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. In fact, we all did; the new display there, called 'Time is out of joint', is the best curation of modern art that I've yet seen. The works were cleverly placed in context with older art and the gallery space itself, with compelling themes that actually worked. Best of all, there was absolutely no pretentiousness. Every wannabe curator should go and visit this excellent museum. AHN applauds director Cristiana Collu - bravo!

AHN has also started a Vimeo page, where I will post the occasional video taken from my phone. 

Achtung - Spitfire! (ctd.)

July 8 2017

Image of Achtung - Spitfire! (ctd.)

Picture: ITV News

Here's a story to stir AHN's passions, including as it does paintings and Spitfires; at Cheffins last week a former Spitfire pilot bid on, and bought, a painting of the Spitfire that he actually had flown in the war. Kurt Taussig, a Jewish refugee who joined the RAF, bought the painting for just £360 hammer. What a bargain, and what a story! More, including a video, here.

Incidentally, AHN will be flying a Sptifire next month... expect more Spitfire news soon!

£3m Jewel theft at Masterpiece

July 8 2017

Image of £3m Jewel theft at Masterpiece

Picture: Masterpiece

Not art news this, but I was interested to see that thieves had struck at the annual Masterpiece fair in London. Apparently £3m worth of jewellery has been stolen. When I was working at Masterpiece (in my Philip Mould Gallery days) conjuring up schemes to steal some prized gem from a neighbouring booth was a way we exhibitors used to pass the time. Perhaps someone has gone one step too far this time...

'The Costumist' (ctd.)

July 8 2017

Video: Sotheby's

Here's another video from Sotheby's Old Master specialist Jonquil O'Reilly, who is also an expert on historical costume. The auction world is lucky to have such a good communicator - someone needs to put her on the television soon.


July 6 2017

Image of Apologies...

Picture: BG

Sorry for the readio silence today - we were doing some exciting cleaning tests on a picture for Britain's Lost Masterpieces, which took up most of the day. I'll report on the Old Master sales tomorrow. 


Bowie's Tintoretto at the Rubenshuis Museum

July 6 2017

Video: Antwerp Museums

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling of a new loan at the Rubenshuis museum in Antwerp (one of AHN's favourite museums, as regular readers will know). There was a wonderful concert of period music, played on 'instrumenti originale'.

The painting, of St Catherine, was one of the first artworks bought by David Bowie, and was sold with his collection last year in London by Sotheby's. It didn't fetch a great deal, to be honest (£191k), as its status was somewhat misunderstood - some suggested it was merely a studio piece. But new research has revealed that in fact it was a major commission for Tintoretto, in competition with Veronese, for a church in St Mark's square in Venice. And new analysis such as infra-red drawing has revealed numerous pentimenti, and astonishing underdrawing, which confirms it as an autograph work by Tintoretto. Eventually, it is hoped that a new campaign of conservation will remove any old overpaint. It has been sympathetically re-framed. 

For now, though, the painting looks fantastic at the Rubenshuis - Rubens of course being a great admirer of Tintoretto. A new book on the painting will further explore Rubens' interest in Tintoretto, and how he borrowed many of Tintoretto's poses. Also, it turns out that David Bowie was a frequent visitor of the Rubenshuis - so this all has a serendipitous feel to it, especially when you consider that the private collector who bought the painting in London only found out about it three hours before it was due to sell. And did you know that Bowie's music label was called 'Tintoretto Music'?

I'll post more details on this painting soon, with photos of the infra-red etc, showing the under-drawing. 

Tuscan Renaissance 'Cassoni'

July 6 2017

Video: Christie's

Here's Christie's Eugene Pooley talking about Tuscan wedding chests, or 'cassoni'. Christie's evening Old Master sale is tonight - all eyes on the £25m Guardi!

Sargent watercolours

July 6 2017

Video: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Lachlan Goudie guides us around the new Sargent watercolour exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. There was a good review of the show from Jackie Wulschlager in the FT, here

Brueghel the Younger's 'Wedding Feast'

July 5 2017

Video: Sotheby's

More graphics department fun from Sotheby's.

Identifying Anne of Hungary's Fool

July 5 2017

Video: Sotheby's

When the above portrait was first looked at by specialists it was thought to be of an unknown sitter. But clever decoding of the costume allowed identity of the subject as a court fool to Anne of Hungary, Elizabet.

London Old Master sales

July 5 2017

Video: Sotheby's

Sorry again for the dearth of news - I've been away, mainly filming for series 2 of Britain's Lost Masterpieces in Rome and Florence. The latter meant my first ever visit (I'm ashamed to say) to the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace; wow - what treasures! More on that later.

But first a few thoughts on the London Old Master sales, which I viewed quickly yesterday. Both Christie's and Sotheby's have some seriously impressive pictures on offer. The myth that 'supply' is a problem in the Old Master market has again been disproved, with proper museum quality pictures on offer. The most obvious are of course the £15m-£25m Turner of Ehrenbreitstein at Sotheby's (for which see the amazing animation above) and the mega Guardi at Christie's (no whizzy videos for this though - Christie's marketing department, where are you?). 

Regular readers will know that as a Van Dyck anorak I'm biased, but I was very taken with the newly discovered Van Dyck of St Sebastian at Christies. I've known of this painting for some years, and there can be little doubt that it's 'right' - indeed, I think it's even better than the supposed 'prime' version in the Louvre. The estimate, at £1.2m-£1.8m, strikes me as quite reasonable. This is a picture which could quite easily have existed in a major museum for centuries - imagine what the estimate would be if, say, it was being sold from the Louvre.

Another new Van Dyck is at Christie's; an oil on paper head study (from Van Dyck's first Antwerp period) of an old man. This is lot 1 of the evening sale, and seems again to be reasonably priced at £60k-£80k. Like many of these pictures, it has at some point been extended and turned into a more 'finished' picture. But the condition is good overall, and it's a strong image.

Van Dyck also appears at Sotheby's, with a rare grisaille, of the engraver Jean-Baptiste Barbé, estimated at £200k-£300k. Genuine Van Dyck grisailles are rare things, and lots of studio copies and later imitations turn up for sale. This one is certainly autograph, and in good state too. 

Sotheby's has a portrait I've been hoping to see for many years; Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the great radical politician Charles James Fox. Years ago I used to work for the Labour MP Tony Banks, who ran the works of art committee in the House of Commons, and was passionate about all things Fox. A Lawrence portrait of Fox was always on his wish-list, and would have been snapped up by him for the Commons collection. When it was painted, the consensus of the day was that Lawrence's portrait was not a success - but I think it's excellent, and this example, in excellent condition, is as fine a demonstration of Lawrence's early technique as you'll find. The estimate is £150k-£200k.

A pricier and more flamboyant British 18thC portrait is Joseph Wright of Derby's Three Eldest Children of Richard Arkwright with a Kite. This (at Sotheby's) is priced at £2m-£3m, and could quite easily have come from Tate Britain. The most intriguing portrait of the week is also at Sotheby's; a depiction of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary, painted by Jan Sanders Van Hemessen (£400k-£600k). There's also a Jan Lievens portrait of a man in profile in fantastically good condition, cheap at £300k-£500k. I must congratulate Sotheby's for putting up good explanatory labels for each lot - not just the artist, title and estimate. It all helps break down the barriers for new collectors I think.

The drawings sales are full of enticing bargains by the big names. I loved the Guercino head study at Sotheby's (£12k-£15k). It's heretical to say it, but I think Guercino was a better draughtsman than a painter. Also interesting is the Liotard portrait of a Lady; this had some condition issues in the borders of the paper, but still seems good value at £10k-£15k. There are also a number of early Turner drawings and watercolours in the low thousands - it seems amazing to me that there is still this price disparity for works by artists like Turner. The centrepiece of Sotheby's drawing sale is a £2.5m-£3.5m view of the Coronation of a Venetian Doge by Canaletto

Christie's drawing sale has a self-portrait drawing by Sir Joshua Reynolds, priced this time at £100k-£150k. It was up for sale a few years ago at (I recall) £200k-£300k, but didn't sell. It is slightly 'rubbed', but otherwise still does the business. Reynolds did it when he was just seventeen. Turner features in the Christie's sale with this £500k-£700k view of Norham Castle.

There's plenty more to write about, but my train is just pulling into London. As a mark of my dedication to you, AHNers, I've been writing this a la Jeremy Corbyn, sitting on the floor, resting against a bin. That's British trains for you, and I'm afraid it must explain the lack of photos in this post. There's no wifi either. I'm  hoping to catch Bonhams sale this morning (their view ended at 4.30pm yesterday!). Also, I wrote a piece for The Art Newspaper on the sales, but for some reason this is not yet online, and only in the printed version. There are some other videos about the sales, which I'll post shortly.

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