The value of dirt

April 30 2014

Image of The value of dirt

Picture: Christie's (left), Sotheby's (right)

We've just had a round of rather uninspiring Old Master sales here in London. I haven't noticed any special prices to report, on the sleeper front. However, I was interested to see that the above portrait in oil on copper by Gonzales Coques sold at Sotheby's for £16,250. This was some seven years after it sold at Christie's in Paris for a whopping EUR78,000. So someone has presumably taken quite a hit...

Why the dramatic price difference? Well, first, as we say in the trade, 'cleaning is the friend of a good picture, and the enemy of a bad one'. The cleaned picture, as seen this week at Sotheby's, isn't an especially bad one. But it's fair to say that it's not as enticing as the pre-cleaning, Christie's image might have led one to believe.

Then there's the question of whether it's better to enter a picture into a sale cleaned or 'dirty'. I'm often asked by consignors whether they should restore a picture before sending it to auction, and the answer is - rarely. Despite the auction houses' best efforts to work against art dealers, it is still the case that dealers underpin most prices at auction, particularly for the middle market. So when the Coques was at Christie's in 2007 its dirty and alluring state would have appealed to the trade, who, in taking a risk on the painting in its unclear condition and then restoring it, could be seen to have added value to the sale price which, in this era of online prices, anyone could easily look up. The dirty picture, therefore, would have been a good piece of stock for dealers to buy, and consequntly the number of potential bidders went up, and the price was high. I know it was bought by a major European dealer, whom I shan't name. 

This time round, alas, there would have been no trade buyers for such a shiny bright work, and so the price achieved was much less. It's still the same picture of course. Which value was more appropriate? I don't know. But the moral of the story is, keep your picture's dirty (most of the time).

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