On the 18th of May, Sotheby’s presented an interesting sale of 19th century works of art. For the past 6 or 8 years these sales have struggled … not because there was a lack of interest, but because the quality of the art just wasn’t there. Yes, they had a sprinkling of good works; however, a larger percentage of the sale was, for lack of a better phrase, filler – those works that in a really hot market would sell, but in these more selective days do not.
This recent sale was a little different. Yes, there was still ‘filler, but there were also some very interesting works of art … some of which had been in storage (or off the market) for decades. Near the beginning of the sale a beautiful work by Jules Breton was offered and while the subject might be a little limiting, the market saw it for what it was – an exceptional work … his Les communiantes made $1.27M (est. $500-$700K) – the last time it appeared on the market was back in 1994 and sold for $498K (also on a $500-$700K estimate). A short time later a very powerful work by Jules Lefebvre was offered with a $50-$70K estimate and sold for $175K (this same painting sold back in 2001 for $26K). About one-quarter of the way through the sale a very impressive del Campo hit the block and again there was strong action … his A View of the Grand Canal with the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti carried a $400-$600K estimate and sold for $682K; this artist’s views of Venice are hard to beat and consistently bring strong prices.
Then came the saleroom’s big test … Jean Beraud. Why a big test? Because they had 15 works to sell – and that is a lot for any artist in one sale. The first work, Un Figaro de reve, was a beautifully painted work, but the subject is not what everyone wants from this artist and the $700-$900K estimate proved too much – the work was unsold. Then came a collection of 14 Berauds once owned by Margaret T. Biddle. The first was La Conversation, an elegant interior scene that was not only a quality work, but among the best condition pieces in the collection. The $500-$700K estimate was a little strong for the scene, but it did find a buyer at $490K ($400K hammer plus buyer’s premium). Next there was Scene sur les Champs-Elysees which brought $646K (est. $500-$700K) and two lots later came the big one — Bois de Boulogne (not big in size, but in subject). This work was a very strong example … great period, pretty good subject matter (my only complaint was that the carriages were heading away from the viewer) and only some minor restoration. The painting sparked a bidding war and in the end its $1.81M selling price left the $600-$800K estimate in the dust – it was also the second highest price for a work at auction. Had those horses and buggies been facing the viewer, this had a good shot of making a record price. In the end, of the 14 works 11 sold, 2 were bought in and 1 was withdrawn. I must add that a few of them sold at prices far below their estimates … and to be honest, the estimates were pretty robust given the quality and period. Guess low reserves, which were more in line with their values, allowed them to sell.
There were other pretty strong results, these included Cabanel’s Mary Magdalene at the Tomb which brought an over-the-top price of $225K (est. $60-$80K) – someone needs to explain this one to me; Firmin-Girard’s Woman Sewing in a Garden (14 x 9 inches) made $81K (est. $30-$40K) and Bouguereau’s Le sommeil at $970K (est. $800-$1.2M).
Since there were 21 works that did not sell, we should cover a few of those. Among the bigger lots were 3 by Corot – none of which sold. Now before you say: the Corot market is dead! You really needed to see these paintings in person … then you would understand why they sparked no interest. An extremely large (and loose) Munnings (est. $800-$1.2M), Lavery’s Mrs. Osler (est. $300-$500K) and Bouguereau’s Convoitise (est. $200-$300K) also passed. Remember, just because an important artist painted the work does not mean it will sell … more importantly, it is what is on the canvas and its condition. In these more selective times, works typically need to check all the boxes for them to find buyers.
By the end of the session, of the 94 works offered, 73 sold (a sell-through rate of 77.7% — It is important to note that this was their highest sell-through rate for a 19th century sale in about 10 years) and the total take was $14.3M (low end of the estimate range was $13.9M … so with the buyer’s premium they made it). The top 3 lots in this sale accounted for $4.17M (or just 29% of the total take) and the top 10 brought in $8.68M (60.7%). All around, a pretty good sale.
I decided to go a bit further with the results … comparing them to this same sale over the past 5 years:
2016: 94 works offered, 73 sold (77.7%) – total take $14.3M
2015: 85 works offered, 49 sold (58%) – total take $ 8.5M
2014: 102 works offered, 63 sold (61.8%) – total take $16.5M
2013: 111 works offered, 56 sold (50%) – total take $10.4M
2012: 110 works offered, 71 sold (64.6%) – total take $20.6M
So for all those naysayers … the 19th century market is as strong as ever and on par with all the other markets. When good quality works are offered, they bring strong prices; however, when mediocrity is presented, the works (in general) are going to have a difficult time.
With more curated sales and estimates that are in line with the quality of the works being offered, the results should continue to improve.