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Auction Action

Coverage on the July 2014 Old Masters & British Art Sales

Christie’s evening Old Masters and British Paintings began the week and if the results were a sign of what was to come, some people were not going to be very happy.

The top selling lot was Francesco Guardi’s Venice, the Bacino di San Marco with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace. Painted at the height of Guardi’s career this work recorded the second highest auction price for the artist when it made £9.9M / $16.9M (est. £8M – £10M). This work has not been seen in public since 1954 when it was bought by Baron Henri de Rothschild from the Earls of Shaftesbury collection.

In second, was a work that made headlines both in the U.K. and in the U.S. — Johannes Vermeer’s Saint Praxedis. The authenticity of this signed and dated painting has been disputed for decades; but recent scientific analysis points to it being the real thing. If so, this would be the earliest known work by Vermeer and I guess someone believed it to be right since it sold for £6.2M / $10.7M (est. £6-8M). It is important to note that the hammer price was under the low estimate — hard to believe that an ‘authentic’ Vermeer would sell for such a low price, but what do we know about Old Masters? Not much! The painting was being sold by the estate of Barbara P. Johnson and is one of the only two works still in private hands – currently there are only 37 ‘authentic’ works by Vermeer.

In third was The Road to Calvary, by Pieter Brueghel II which sold for £5.5M / $9.4M (est. £5M – £7M) and is said to be one of the finest of all his large-scale works that remain in private collections.

Many works during the sale set new artist auction records including, Willem Claesz. Heda’s A Blackberry Pie on a Pewter Platter… which made £4.8M / $8.3M; Matthias Stomer’s Christ before Pilate, which brought in £843K / $1.4M; The Annunciation to the Shepherds by the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds (love that artist’s name) selling for £2.4M / $4.1M (est. – £1M – £1.3M); The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Fa Presto, which sold for £963K / $1.6M (est. – £800K – £12M) and Sir Henry Raeburn’s Portrait of Sir Evan Murray-Macgregor of Macgregor which sold for £459K / $785K (est. – £400k – £600K).

In the end, the sale realized £44.9M ($76.78M) with 36 out of 68 works selling (53% – not very good) … it is interesting to note that this year’s total was almost double last year’s of £24M for the same number of sold lots.

On the 9th, Christie’s held their day sale and Antonio Zucchi’s Portrait of James Adam held the top post at £375K / $641K (est. – £30K- £50K). This was followed by a Sir Peter Paul at £231K / $395K (est. £100K – £150K) and a Marten Ryckaert landscape which brought £213K / $364K (est. £200K – £300K).

When done, the auction room set a record for an Old Masters and British Paintings day sale when they realized £5.4M / $9.3M, selling 86 of the 142 lots offered (61% – not a great sell-through rate). Again, it is interesting to note that last year’s day sale sold 85 of the 142 lots offered and brought in £3.9M … so 2014 was far stronger from a very similar sale.

That evening, Sotheby’s offered its Old Masters and British Paintings Evening Sale and the results were much better than their competitor; so strong that they broke their previous record of £67.58M set in 2002. The key ingredient in this sale was that many of the works came from prestigious aristocratic and private collections and have not been on the market for decades, even centuries.

The top selling lot was George Stubbs’s Tygers at Play, bringing in £7.7M / $13M (est. £4M – £6M). The work, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776, depicts two leopard cubs and was originally part of a distinguished British aristocratic collection. The painting changed hands in 1962 and 52 years later was put up for sale.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man carried an estimate of £2M – £3M and garnered £6.8M / $11.7M; giving it the number 2 spot in the sale and setting a new auction record for the artist.

Giovanni da Rimini’s Left wing of a Diptych with episodes from the lives of the Virgin and other Saints… carried a £2M – £3M estimate and sold for just under £5.7M / $9.7M — generating another record for an artist at auction and placing third in the sale.

It was very interesting to note that throughout the sale, numerous works made well above their high estimates. Both, Hendrick Avercamp’s A Panoramic Winter Landscape… and Michele Marieschi’s Venice, The Bacino Di San Marco… more than tripled their high estimates, the first bringing in £5M / $8.6M (est. £1M – £1.5M) and sparking yet another auction record and the second bringing in £2.2M / $3.8M (estimate £400K – £600K GBP). In addition, a work by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch made £423K / $724K– more than five times its high estimate of £80K / $137K.

In all, seventeen records were set during the auction; the most interesting of which was a drawing by Sandro Botticelli. His Study for a seated St. Joseph, his head resting on his right hand is the only drawing by the Renaissance Master that has come to auction since the 19th century. The provenance and changes in attribution for this work provide and interesting glimpse into the complex world of the Old Masters. In 1955, the drawing was sold as “Workshop of Sandro Botticelli” for £300, two years later it was sold for £290 (a little loss), in 1979 the work was sold as “Circle of Sandro Botticelli” and brought $26K, but by the time it reappeared in 1988 it was considered the real thing and garnered $80K. This time around, the drawing realized £1.315M ($2.25M), more than twenty-seven times its last selling price. Impressive!

Overall the sale brought in £68.3M / $116M from 51 of 63 lots offered (81%); 95% of the lots sold achieved prices within or above their high estimates – pretty good! In 2013, the same sale offered 48 works and sold 37 (77%) for a total of £35M.

On the 10th, we had Sotheby’s Day Sale and all of the top ten works came from the collection of the Earls of Warwick. The top seller was a surprise when the bidding for a painting Attributed to Sir Anthony van Dyck, titled Portrait of Ferdinand de Boischott, Baron Zaventem, soared past its estimate of £50K – £70K to sell for £723K / $1.2M. The number two lot, Portrait of a man with a gloved hand from the Studio of Anthony Van Dyck, brought £411K / $704M, over six times its estimate of £40K – £60K. The third most expensive work was Madonna and Child by Agnolo di Domenico di Donnino which sold for £207K / $354M, more than three times its estimate of £40K – £60K.

Sotheby’s stated that this sale was one of the strongest in recent history, and provided lengthy provenances for several works. This enabled me to determine the growth of the Old Masters market all the way back to the 1700s in some cases. For example, Giovanni Battista Salvi’s Madonna and Child was originally bought at Christies, in 1778, for 8 ½ guineas, the equivalent to about 8.93 GBP at the time (if my research is right). This time around the work brought £81K / $138K … that’s over a 906,000% increase in value.

Overall, the Old Masters and British paintings day sale totaled £5.99M / $10.2M well above the pre-sale estimate of £5.2M from 100 of the 140 lots offered (71%). In 2013, the same sale at Sotheby’s brought in £4.6M from 80 sold lots (51.3% — there were 156 lots offered).

By the end of the week, Sotheby’s racked up a total of £74.3M while Christie’s brought in £50.3M for a combined total of £124.6M ($213M) … the 2013 combined total was £67.6M ($103M) — so 2014 was much stronger.

About Alyssa T. Rehs

Alyssa Rehs is a fourth generation Art Dealer at her family owned art galleries, Rehs Galleries, Inc. and Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., New York City, New York. She received an Art History degree from the University of Rhode Island in 2012 as well as interned at Christie’s Auction House, New York City. Using her art historian degree, gallery experience, and a summer spent working at the auction house, she has a well rounded understanding of the art market. Alyssa appreciates the market from multiple standpoints; art lover, art buyer and art seller!


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