Category: Auctions

Sleeper Alert!

June 16 2016

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Ferri-Drouot

The above painting made €1.56m (hammer) against an estimate of €6k-€8k in Paris last week. The 'Judgement of Paris' was catalogued as 'Workshop of Rubens', but a number of trade buyers thought it was the real deal. It's painted in oil on panel. Having seen some high-res photos (as far as one can judge these things from photos) I agree - it is probably 'right', and must be Rubens' study for the painting in the National Gallery in London. It was underbid by a London dealer. I don't know who bought it. At close to €2m with commissions I suppose the picture more or less made its money. All will depend on condition.

The National Gallery picture follows the sketch very clossely, but Rubens has altered the angle of Paris' leg. Look closely at the NG painting, however, and you can see that underneath the green background paint, the original position of Paris' leg is still visible - which matches the newly discovered sketch. Until now, the only evidence of Rubens' sketch for the NG painting has been a copy in the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden. You can read more about the genesis of the NG painting here in the 'National Gallery Technical Bulletin' (although I don't personally agree with all their conclusions).

I missed the auction in Paris entirely. My eye has been completely off the ball of late - too tied up with telly, which can be all consuming.

In fact, I haven't done very well with my Judgements of Paris this year. Some months ago I underbid a good, previously unknown studio version of the NG painting, which came up for sale in Antwerp. I thought that probably there were a number of areas that Rubens might have touched up himself. The painting was later flipped into a sale in Dorotheum in Vienna, and made a smooth profit of about €700k. That picture must have been made working from the newly discovered study, for it follows the original position of Paris' leg.

Anyway, thanks to these new discoveries we have a much more complete view of how Rubens tackled this subject. It's an example of how the marketplace can help advance art historical understanding.

Update - the Antiques Trade Gazette reports that the French auction house sent a photo of the painting to the Rubenianum in Antwerp before the sale. Their response was apparently that it was neither an autograph nor a studio work:

Cabinet Turquin’s Eric Turquin told ATG that they had studied and researched the work for three months before the auction and felt it was “a real workshop painting,  that is of the period and something done under the direction of the master with or without his participation”.

The expert also said they made an enquiry and sent a photograph of the painting to the research centre in Antwerp, The Rubenianum, but the centre did not think it was either by Rubens or from his studio.

Sleeper alert?

June 16 2016

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above painting described as 'After George Stubbs' was offered in a minor Christie's New York 'Living with Art' sale earlier this week, with an estimate of $3,000-$5,000. It sold for $215,000.

The picture was deaccessioned by the Huntington Art Collection in California.

But its status as 'not Stubbs' is new. The picture is listed in the recent Yale catalogue raisonné as a genuine work by Stubbs. It was acquired by the Huntington as a Stubbs. It is signed (lower right) and is on panel, as is often the case with Stubbs. From the (not especially good) online photo I can see why the picture might have struck some as being 'right'. According to the catalogue note, the painting is now 'understood' to be a copy of another work, even though the whereabouts of that work is not currently known, and could only be judged on the basis (it seems) of a photo from 1958.

Hmmm. Has a bish been made here? If so, it's one of the biggest deaccessioning blunders of modern times. The Huntington is not awash with Stubbs, and has only one other painting by him. Or is it the most expensive Stubbs copy in history?

Either way, here's what I don't really understand about these deaccessioning cases. The picture was offered 'without reserve', which means that the Huntington were happy to literally give it away. If only one person had bid $50, then that's what they would have been obliged to sell it for. But that being so, then why bother selling it in the first place? The picture had evidently been recognised as a genuine Stubbs for many years. It was dirty and apparently overpainted in parts - and thus impossible to judge with certainty whether it was by Stubbs or not. So why take the risk of getting it wrong? And why have such little institutional curiosity as to not investigate the possibility of Stubbs' authorship more fully, if only as an interesting academic exercise?

Lost Gauguin found

June 16 2016

Image of Lost Gauguin found

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports on the discovery of a long lost Gauguin still life in the US. It was identified by Litchfield County Auctions after the work was consigned to them. The owner had no idea it was a lost Gauguin, but the painting matches a black and white illustration in the Wildenstein catalogue raisonneé of Gauguin's work. The picture will be sold on June 29th, and the estimate is $800,000-$1,200,000. The catalogue entry is here.

Beit collection picture back at auction

June 9 2016

Image of Beit collection picture back at auction

Picture: Christie's

Christie's July Old Master auction catalogues have gone online. I'll look at these in more detail soon, but I noticed that one of the Beit Collection pictures has been re-offered for sale. Last year, a number of Beit pictures, once owned by the late Sir Alfred Beit, and house in Russborough Hall in Ireland, were withdrawn at the last minute after an outcry in Ireland. Now, a Rubens sketch, Venus Supplicating Jupiter, is to be sold at £1.2m-£1.8m.

Since last year, a number of Beit pictures have been secured for continued public display in Ireland.

Update - there are two other Beit pictures in the sale, two Guardis, lots 38 and 39.

Update II - the National Trust for Ireland, An Taisce, has loudly condemned the sale, and called for the three pictures to be withdrawn (again). They say that the export licence might not be valid. More here

National Trust acquires Gainsborough portrait

May 11 2016

Image of National Trust acquires Gainsborough portrait

Picture: Sotheby's

The National Trust has acquired a fine portrait by Thomas Gainsborough for Knole house in Kent. Says the Trust (on its 'Recent Acquisitions' website):

Thomas Gainsborough’s elegant portrait of Louis-Pierre Quentin de Richebourg, marquis de Champcenetz (1754-1822), has returned to Knole after an absence of more than eight decades. This reacquisition for Knole marks the important return of a significant work by one of Britain’s most treasured artists.

Champcenetz was a French courtier and soldier who fought in the American War of Independence. He later served as Governor of the Tuileries Palace where he survived an assault by revolutionary forces on 10 August 1792. His portrait  formed part of the collection at Knole since at least 1793 when it was in the possession of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. In 1930 it was sold to a collector in the United States where it remained, in several different hands, until its reappearance for sale this year.

The portrait was purchased at auction at Sotheby's, New York with contributions from a fund set up by the late Hon. Simon Sainsbury, from the Winchelsea National Trust Centre and Association and from other gifts and bequests.

It will go on public display in 2017 upon the completion of Knole's conservation project.

The picture was at Sotheby's in New York in January, and sold for $334,000 (inc. premium) against an estimate of $250,000-$350,000.

Boom (ctd.)

May 11 2016

Picture: Twitter

Things seem to have been a little bumpy at the top end of the modern and contemporary market this week in New York. Things still sold well, but one wonders if cracks are beginning to appear. I was particularly struck by a tweet (above) from Marion Maneker, whose blog Art Market Monitor is the leading source of information and opinion on the health of the modern market. 'Liz' was a Warhol on offer at Christie's for $10m-$15m. The Mugrabis are mega Warhol collectors.

I think it's fair to say that Marion has been, if not a cheerleader, at least a believer in the strength and resilience of the booming modern and contemporary art market. So if people like him really are beginning to wonder about the health of Warhol prices, then I think that's significant. Warhol prices seem to have been teetering for a while now. Tonight Sotheby's will offer a 'fright wig' self-portrait by Warhol at $7m-$10m, so we'll see how that does.

Still, Christie's post-war and contemporary sale yesterday made an impressive enough $318m, so we're a long way away from disaster territory. The 'hammer' total excluding premium was $277m, just nudging the lower pre-sale estimate of $280m-$391m. A truly monstrous Basquiat sold for a record $57.3m - more here from The Art Newspaper.

In other market news, Sotheby's announced a slightly larger than expected loss for the most recent quarter, but their share price went up amid reports of an investor seeking to increase their shareholding in the company. The share price closed yesterday at $28.72, which is still some way off its more recent highs (in summer 2015) of about $46, and follows an extended 'buy-back' of shares by the company itself.  

Update - Sotheby's contemporary evening sale did ok last night, realising $242m with premium, or $209m hammer, which apparently was just above the lower estimate. Reuters tells us there were 'cheers of relief' in the room at the end of the sale. The Warhol 'Fright Wig' self-portrait sold too, for $7.6m inc. premium, or $6.65m hammer (est. $7m-$10m).

London mid-season OMP sales

May 5 2016

Image of London mid-season OMP sales

Picture: Christie's

I've been meaning to mention the mid-season Old Master sales in London - they did really quite well, with some strong prices and good selling rates. So bah to all those writing off the 'middle market'. 

I noticed that portraiture did quite well. For example, the above Cornelius Johnson, which was in fine condition and extravagantly signed, soared to £158,500 against an estimate of just £15,000-£25,000.

Highlighting the vagaries of the auction world was this portrait by Gainsborough, which made £60,000 from an estimate of £15,000-£25,000, even though it had failed to sell earlier at a higher estimate.

Old Master fans are fortunate that the major auction houses are sticking with the OMP middle market, and not only that but still trying hard with it.

Guffwatch (ctd.)

May 4 2016

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's new video series, 'Imagine the Conversation', is the guff gift that keeps on giving. Yesterday we had a 'curated dinner', today we have:

[...] eight decadent truffles inspired by art from our May Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art sales.

The chocolatier given the mission by Sotheby's, Katrina Markoff, talks of how she made a truffle Cy Twombly:

With the Cy Twombly piece, obviously very intense red drippy strokes, and we used beet red died chocolate to do strokes that were similar to that on the painting, those strokes give energy and movement, and fluidity to something that's quite static, like chocolate.

My favourite, though, is the Warhol truffle, 'inspired' by Sotheby's forthcoming $7m-$10m Warhol 'Fright Wig' self-portrait:

I imagine if you bite into it, it's empty.

Sotheby's aim with these videos is to draw in new buyers. But does associating a painting with a powdered truffle, an amuse bouche, make anyone want to fork out $10m for it? Isn't the whole point of marketing the more ephemeral end of the contemporary art market instead about creating an environment of nodding, po-faced seriousness, and engendering the sort of earnest conversation that helps elevate the status of one of thousands of prints into an apparently unique masterpiece. Who drops $10m on a joke? Or is the joke on us?

Update - you can buy the truffles here. $45 per box.

Update II - Marion Maneker kindly picked up on my post, and writes on Art Market Monitor:

Actually, the joke is on Sotheby’s who have violated one of the basic taboos of advertising and marketing by resorting to borrowed interest. That’s where you try to create excitement around a brand or product by associating it with something wholly unconnected.

In this case, Sotheby’s has gone a step further. The videos end up promoting the food products far more than they do the art.

Marion also writes that I'm 'no friend of Contemporary art', and I can well understand why my AHN rantings would give that impression. But I love art from all periods, and (secret!) actually have more contemporary art on my walls at home than Old Masters. It's the upper reaches of contemporary art market that I'm no friend of.

Update III - another reader writes:

I can only assume your culinary criticism is due to a surfeit of boarding school food!

Some transitory fun with food delights the senses: forget the bullshit.

To a foodie presentation is everything: inspiration from art and nature: soon recycled.

Unlike Hirst and Emin that stick around like bad smells!

So stick to your day-job and keep your anorak on!


May 3 2016

Video: Sotheby's

Regular readers will have seen some truly magnificent art guff over the past five years of Guffwatch. But I think in the video above we have finally reached a new nadir. Yes, Sotheby's has held a 'curated dinner':

Blurring the lines between art and cuisine, chef and performer Michael Cirino of A Razor, A Shiny Knife curated a dinner at Sotheby’s on 29 April like no other. Interpreting the dialogue between the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary artists in our two-week Imagine the Conversation exhibition, Cirino prepared an haute cuisine meal with no shortage of surprises. Watch the video to delight in the art-inspired evening and visit our New York headquarters to see the exhibition for yourself.  

I have watched it three times, desperately hoping it was all a joke. It's not. People actually went to Sotheby's and took this stuff seriously, as they 'seguewayed' from an 'Impressionist starter' (a salad, because, like, the Impressionists worked outside) to their Warhol-inspired soup (it came out of a Campbells can, but held with white gloves, so that made it important). Christ.

That's it, game over. The modern art market has finally jumped the shark.

Update - Marion Maneker of The Art Market Monitor, tell us that Sotheby's also:

[...] tore up all the carpeting on the floors so the galleries would have bare concrete to make them hipper.

Update II - a reader writes:

How about an old master portraits dinner, with, say, a  Mytens starter, segwaying (if that is what one does) through a Rubens main course, and a Van Dyck pudding. Er bring it on.

The perils of online bidding

April 29 2016

Image of The perils of online bidding

Picture: Christie's

Tens of millions of pounds have been spent on online bidding platforms, but it seems to me to be an extremely unreliable way of buying at auction. I certainly won't be risking it again after two recent misses. 

The most recent was at Sotheby's in their Old Master mid-season sale. The sale started off ok, and I was cheerfully logged in watching auctioneer Andrew Fletcher, who always conducts his sales in an entertaining and friendly manner. But then just before my lot came up, disaster. As the bidding screen froze, the clerks on the desk beside Andrew started poking around at the back of their laptop. The sale carried on, despite me shouting uselessly at my computer, and by the time the bidding icon reappeared the hammer had fallen. The bids office were very apologetic, but explained that once the hammer had fallen there was nothing they could do.

More frustrating was a recent bid on, the leading platform for regional auctions in the UK. A few months ago a wee sleeper-ette appeared in the shires, the above sketch by George Romney of Lady Hamilton. I believe it was called Portrait of a Lady or some such, and the estimate wasn't much more than £200. There I was again logged in, and clicked away until the hammer went down, and the website told me that I had the winning bid. But when I called the auction house to pay the bill they said it had sold to someone in the room, even though I distinctly heard the auctioneer say it had sold to an online bidder (which I assumed at the time was me). I recall it sold for about £800.

I wasn't too distressed when I saw the picture reappear this week in Christie's Old Master sale in South Kensington as a Romney (officially blessed by Romney scholar Alex Kidson). It had an estimate of £4k-£6k, which I thought was about right for a picture in somewhat compromised condition. But to my surprise it made £30,000.

Some you win, some you lose.

Dobson self-portrait for sale

April 27 2016

Video: Bonhams

Bonhams are offering William Dobson's earliest known self-portrait in their forthcoming July Old Master sale in London. The estimate is £200,000-£300,000, which strikes me as quite reasonable. A very similar painting of the artist's wife is in the Tate gallery. Tate should be really buy this one too.

Bonhams kindly showed me the picture the other day; it is compelling, and in good condition. Although painted around 1635-40, the most noticeable thing about it to me was how un Van Dyck-ian the technique is. Instead it seems more Dutch if anything. Although Dobson's tecnnique does become a little more Van Dyck-ian later on, in its smoother application of paint, early works such as the self-portrait at Bonhams only raise further questions about where Dobson emerges from, in an artistic sense. Was Dobson really a pupil of Van Dyck, as some sources suggest? Not on this evidence, at least. Sadly, we know few certain details about his life. 

The above film was made by ZCZ Films, the Great Waldemar's production company. Waldemar is probably the world's no.1 Dobson fan, and made an excellent film on the artist some years ago.

Christie's 'Classic Art Week' (ctd.)

April 16 2016

Image of Christie's 'Classic Art Week' (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

There has been much chatter in the Old Master world about the wisdom or otherwise of Christie's moving their main New York Old Master sales from January to April. The move also saw a re-branding to 'Classic Art Week'.

The Old Master sales were yesterday, and it looks to me as if the results were very strong indeed. The gamble has paid off, and we must congratulate Christie's for doing something bold and different - and also, more significantly, for halting what appeared to be a slide in their New York Old Master fortunes. There have been some key new appointments in the New York office in the last year or so, most notably Francois de Poortere, the new head of Old Masters. 

The 'Part 1' sale total was $30.4m. Last year's major January Old Master sales at Christie's (their 'Part 1' and 'Renaissance' sales combined) made just under $25m. This year's 'Part II' sale did better than last year's too. Here's Christie's press release heralding the news.

Christie's top lot was a small El Greco (above, 11 x 7.5 inches) of The Entombment, which made $6.1m (inc. premium) against an estimate of $4m-$6m. El Greco is one of the Old Master artists of the moment - his quirkiness and bright colouring appeals to today's artistic taste. Next up was an early 15th C gold-ground painting by Bernardo Daddi, which made $3.8m (inc. premium). There were very few buy-ins in the Part 1 sale. See the full results here. The newly discovered almost-sleeper Rubens I mentioned earlier, sold well at $269k (est. $120-$180k).

So, although I am of course a perennial Old Master optimist, I think this is all a good sign for the market. There were no real mega-star pictures in Christie's sale, but they still got a good total with decent selling rates. Should Sotheby's move their sale too? I hope not - I think it's a good thing the major Old Master offerings are spread more evenly throughout the year. Dumping so many pictures on a small market all at once always struck me as an odd strategy.

New Rubens discovery in New York

April 1 2016

Image of New Rubens discovery in New York

Picture: Christie's

I was glad to see the above picture in Christie's forthcoming New York catalogue, correctly described as by Rubens. It had previously been in a Christie's South Kensington sale as 'Flemish School', and though I was disappointed to see it withdrawn shortly before the sale, the sleuther's loss is the consignor's gain. 

The estimate of $120,000-$180,000 seems quite reasonable. The sale is on 14th April. Other highlights include a fine, small El Greco of The Entombment at $4m-$6m, and an important newly discovered Virgin and Child by Joos van Cleve $600k-$800k. 

Breughel's 'Birdtrap' at Dorotheum in April

March 7 2016

Video: Dorotheum

I like to keep an eye on auction house's social media efforts, so it's good to see that Dorotheum (Austria's pre-eminent auctioneers) are making videos now. The above looks at a Pieter Brueghel the Younger 'Birdtrap' on offer in their April Old Master sale. We learn the astonishing fact that there are apparently 46 versoins of this scene by the artist. 

No estimate is given in the video, alas. (Dorotheum folks, estimates are essential in videos like this!).

Update - a reader writes:

Brueghel estimate in the video on the label on the wall, bottom right €700-900k estimate.  Not clear I grant you!

Henry Wyndham to leave Sotheby's

February 29 2016

Video: Creative Choices

I learn from Georgina Adam on Twitter that Henry Wyndham is to leave Sotheby's. For auction lovers this is sad news indeed, for he was the best auctioneer in the business. Although any succesful auction is usually thought to be down to whether things like the estimates or attributions were right, the actual performance of the auctioneer on the night is a large, and underrated, aspect of the whole operation. Wyndham's sales were always conducted with the perfect blend of humour (with Sotheby's George Wachter often playing Ernie Wise to Wyndham's Eric Morecambe), deadly earnestness in focussing on bidders (with a sharp 'are you bidding?' directed at anyone wavering), and just the right amount of bluff (auctions are all about bluff, especially when the bidders are thin). Despite his many skills, however, there was never a sense of 'look at me' with Wyndham on the rostrum, as there can be with other auctioneers.

Though I've only met him once or twice, I must have been to dozens of his sales, often just to see how he did it. A key technique was to focus on the pace of a sale. In a Wyndham auction there was rarely a moment's silence, for he would rattle off bids like a racing commentator with Tourette's. Other auctioneers sometimes let the room go too quiet when they're looking for bids, which immediately signals that something's about to 'buy-in' - in which case people sit on their hands. In a Wyndham auction one always had the sense that someone else was about to bid, so you felt you'd better get your hand up quickly.

In the video above, he talks about his career at Sotheby's, and how he got started. I wonder who'll replace him?

Update - and of course the more significant questions are; why is he going, and is he going anywhere else?

Update II - Melanie Girlis in The Art Newspaper reports that Wyndham, who was of course Chairman of Sotheby's Europe, will take a break for 'six months before deciding what to do next'. 

$24m Taubman Old Master sale

January 28 2016

Image of $24m Taubman Old Master sale

Picture: Sotheby's

The Old Masters from Alfred Taubman's collection were sold at Sotheby's last night for a total of $24.1m (inc. premium). The pre-sale estimate was $21m-$30m (excluding premium) - but the estimates were already high, given the need to recoup Sotheby's guarantee of $515m from the Taubman sale. Indeed, it seems the sale went better than Sotheby's expected, and last night they were able to cut their expected loss on the Sotheby's guarantee from $6m to $3m. Possibly, given some minor remaining lots in future auctions, and judicious private selling of those works that did not sell last night, the auction house might in time even come out just ahead on the deal.

Overall, though, the sale last night was seen as good news by those in the 'trade'. When the small Raphael portrait, the first major lot of the Old Master week, sold for $2.7m against an estimate of $2m-$3m you could almost feel the whole room relax. Sotheby's specialists must have been under a heap of pressure going into the sale, and I think they did well, aided of course by the incomparable auctioneering of Henry Wyndham. Sotheby's also sensibly cut the reserves on some of their more over-estimated lots, such as a Beccafumi tondo which hammered at $1m against an estimate of $2m-$3m.

The best pictures went way above estimate, such as the above Valentin de Boulogne, which sold for $5.1m (inc. premium) against an estimate of $1.5m-$2m. As ever, Venetian vedute paintings sold well (you could even say there's something of a boom in this market), with a Bellotto making $3m against an estimate of $1.5m-$2m, and fierce competition on a Bellotti selling for $490k against an estimate of $150k-$200k. Taubman's British art did quite well too, with his full-length Gainsborough selling for $3.2m (inc. premium) against an already ambitious estimate of $3m-$4m. The bargain of the night for me was a 50x40 Gainsborough portrait in excellent condition, which sold to the UK trade for $187k (inc. premium, est. $100k-$150k). A Guercino Magdalene bought in against an estimate of $500k-$700k, and could presumably be bought cheaply after the sale if anyone's interested.

Sleeper Alert!

January 21 2016

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: Interencheres

A reader alerts us to the above 'Ecole Hollandaise', which soared to a strong six figure hammer price yesterday in France, against an estimate of a €6k-€8k. It is believed to be by Gerrit van Honthorst.

Sotheby's New York 'Master Paintings'

December 28 2015

Image of Sotheby's New York 'Master Paintings'

Picture: Sotheby's

I'm going to be away from the blog for a few more days, but in the meantime feast your eyes on no less than six Sotheby's Old Master catalogues for their New York sale. Though it seems we must now call them simply 'Master Paintings', for the word 'old' has been dropped. I think I can just about manage this change, though describing Titian and Raphael as simply 'the masters' confusing golf fans might be a challenge.

Anyway, there are treats aplenty, and I'll write up a more in depth preview in the New Year. For now, my pick is the above small portrait by Raphael of the medalist Valerio Belli. The picture is signed, has great provenance, and is one of the last known Raphaels in private hands. All that for an estimate of just $2m-$3m, which seems cheap, even if it's a small thing at 5 inches wide. 

The sale catalogues are: the Taubman pictures here; a private collection of Italian landscapes here; 'Master Paintings' part 1 here; Master Paintings day sale here; the effective part 3 is not yet fully online, but the print catalogue is here; and the drawings catalogue is here

I'll be in New York for the sales by the way. If any readers want advice on pictures for sale, just ask.

Update - the advice is gratis, by the way.

Is the Old Master market dead? (ctd.)

December 21 2015

Image of Is the Old Master market dead? (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

So, another article by Scott Reyburn in the New York Times about the apparent decline of the Old Master market. It follows his last one in July, here, which quoted veteran Old Master dealer Edmondo di Robilant saying “People don’t go to galleries any more, and they don’t buy Old Masters. They’re not part of the overall mood of today’s taste.” 

Back in July, I wrote that di Robilant was wrong, and that his remarks reflected not a decline in the wider appetite for Old Masters, but in the way the market now works. To recap, the old retail model of many art dealers has finished, thanks to a number of factors including the transparency of prices (ie, the internet), the transformation of auction houses from wholesale to retail operations, and the decline of the traditional art fair. For those old fashioned dealers who can’t keep up with the new market it’s easier to say ‘nobody wants Old Masters’ than to admit failure (or for that matter to accept the greatly reduced margins we must all get used to in this more efficient age).

Nevertheless, there still seems to be no shortage of dealers prepared to make statements like di Robilant’s, which feed into the narratives of observers like Scott in the New York Times. But quoting these old school dealers is a bit like, in the age of Amazon, talking only to high street retailers and concluding that nobody's shopping anymore. People are shopping - just in a different way. The same goes for the Old Master market. For example, few seem to believe Sotheby’s impressive statistic that this year 46% of bidders in their Old Master sales were new to the field (and I’ve certainly not seen it quoted anywhere). 

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Scott Reyburn thinks the Old Master market is dying, or indeed very nearly dead. Nor, as we’ve seen, is he the only observer to think that. Here’s his main theme in the New York Times:

[In the 1970s]  Rembrandt was the gold standard. But the Dutchman and his fellow old masters have fallen out of fashion and are no longer as coveted by collectors and investors.

As a measure of that fall, 10 works have sold at auction for more than $100 million since 2004, and all of them were made by modern or contemporary artists in the past 120 years. Older paintings have seen their value, in relative terms, level off or decline. The trend was plain to see in recent weeks, as London’s auction houses tried to find buyers for their latest tranche of old masters. As has been the case in recent years, there were few works by major names.

Leaving aside the fact that ‘recent years’ have seen a £30m Turner and a £29.7m Raphael sold at Sotheby’s alone (and the fact that one of the few Rembrandts to appear at auction was bought by a new Chinese collector), let’s first deal with the main point here - comparing Old Masters with the ballooning modern and contemporary sector. 

So pervasive is the idea that art must go up and up in value, as (for the moment) it seems to in the modern market, that the steady ticking along of Old Master values is somehow seen as disastrous. But of course the Old Master market has always just ticked along. That’s part of its virtue. It doesn’t go roaring up, and nor does it go roaring down. Furthermore, in the Old Master market we’re dealing with artists who are long dead, whose reputations are long established, and where there is little chance of certain artists or genres ever becoming ‘hot’ in the way that fuels speculation in the modern market. It baffles me that this comes as a surprise to some people. I don’t think the fact that no Old Master painting has made more than $100m at auction is relevant - and making the comparison to a different art market is simply wrong. (Incidentally, one Old Master painting did sell for more than $100m in the last two years - Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi).

Then we must look more closely at the figures Scott deploys in his article. First, there’s no denying that the December 2015 Old Master sales in London were disappointing in their overall totals. As I’ve written in the latest print edition of The Art Newspaper, Christie’s £6.4m evening sale was their worst since 2007. But do one year’s figures make a trend?

If used selectively, they would appear to do so, yes. For example, Scott mentioned one painting - by Francesco Fontebasso - which made a loss for its consignor:

[…] Christie’s was offering the mid-18th-century canvas “Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well” by the Venetian artist Francesco Fontebasso at a low estimate of £120,000. The pleasant piece of rococo decoration had been bought at auction in 1990 for $286,000, according to Artnet. At the Dec. 8 sale it fell to a single telephone bid of £115,000, about $170,000, before fees. Investors do not expect to incur a loss of about 40 percent a quarter century after buying a Warhol or a Basquiat.

First, I’d really like to be around in a quarter of a century when someone who bought a Warhol this year tries to get a handsome profit on their ‘investment’. Second, it’s not entirely fair to compare the price of something with buyer’s premium and taxes on the one hand, but without it on the other. And yet, there’s no denying that the values of pictures by the likes of Fontebasso has indeed suffered as a result of changes in taste. That kind of mid-18th Century Venetian picture is not as exciting to buyers these days as slightly earlier works. Unless they’re by a Tiepolo, such pictures can be seen as too flighty and bright. Nor is the Old Testament any longer on everyone’s wish-list. Indeed, another Fontebasso offered at Christie’s this December, The Continence of Scipio, sold for just £30,000 when it had been bought in 1974 for £12,600. That’s a hefty loss adjusting for inflation (the 1974 purchase price would be the equivalent of about £118,000 in today’s money).

However, any decline in Fontebasso’s prices cannot be uniformly applied to suggest a decline across the entire Old Master market - for there are complex changes in taste within the Old Master category itself. As Colin Gleadell highlighted last week in the Telegraph, 15th Century ‘gold ground’ pictures seem to be ‘fast becoming a fashion accessory’ (though they’re not my cup of tea). One could also point to the rise in values of Tudor historical portraiture as evidence of a similar trend; in the 1990s Tudor portraits were not generally that valuable, but today even pedestrian portraits of Elizabeth I make good money. There’s something about their two-dimensional naivety and colouring that fits well with contemporary taste - and the same goes for gold ground paintings. Such pictures go better in a contemporary apartment than a mid-18th Century Venetian picture by poor old Fontebasso. But maybe Fontebasso's time will come again, who knows.

Of course, changes in taste are nothing new in the art world. Van Gogh only sold two pictures while he was alive, while the works of the artist who was setting records in Van Gogh’s day, Jozef Israels, can now be bought in cash terms for about the same as they cost in the late 19th Century. The point is, if we pick out individual pictures, as Scott did with the Fontebasso, we can find figures to suit any argument.

For example, we could quite easily construct a narrative of booming Old Master prices from other individual sales in the December Old Master auctions. A Holy Family by Sebastiano Ricci sold last week for £389,000 inc. premium, but ten years ago it sold for £187,000 - more than doubling in ten years. A picture by Francesco Ubertini bought in 1965 for £16,000 (or £276,712 in today’s money) sold at Sotheby’s for £365,000, handsomely outstripping inflation. Perhaps the most successful ‘investment’ of the sale was the Joseph Wright of Derby Grotto (above), which sold for £665,000 - that picture had been bought directly from the artist in 1780 for £105, a sum which, if invested inline with inflation, would be worth just £16,833 today. So individual picture prices can be misleading. 

We need to look instead at a broader indicator of value. In the New York Times, Scott Reyburn compared this December’s sale totals with those of five years ago:

As a point of comparison, the combined £29.1 million total from those old master sales was 34 percent less than the £44.2 million Christie’s and Sotheby’s took in at equivalent events five years ago, in December 2011.

This is correct; the £29.1m total for this December’s Old Master sales was indeed 34% less than the £44.2m both auction houses took in December 2011. But if you go back to December 2014, you’ll see that month’s total of £67.87m was 53% more than both auction houses took in December 2011. And I don’t recall many pundits declaring a boom in Old Masters then. As the old Fleet Street adage goes, ‘good news is no news’. 

So, it again seems that taking one or two figures can be made to fit any argument. In fact, taking two sale totals just four or five years apart only really demonstrates how dependent Old Master sales are on one or two big picture consignments. This is, after all, a small market catering to a small wealthy elite, fuelled by a finite supply. It makes a difference if a £30m Turner is on the block. This year there has not been a single major picture at auction in both London and New York for either Christie’s or Sotheby’s over £10m. That’s really unusual, and helps account for this year's low sale totals. Next January, however, we’ll see Sotheby’s in New York sell an Orazio Gentileschi for at least $25m.

Let’s look then at the wider sale totals over the last decade. I started with Sotheby’s, because their website is easier to use, and their press office is more efficient than Christie's. Below is my chart showing Sotheby’s combined sale totals from both London and New York, for all Old Master sales (including ‘Day sales’) from 2005 to the end of this year. I decided to combine both London and New York, because it gives a more consistent figure, since, as I mentioned, overall totals can fluctuate significantly if a Turner or a Stubbs is up for sale. I also converted the prices into GBP, for which I used a historic GBP/USD exchange rate for the beginning of each year in question. 

As you can see, in cash terms the overall trend is up. 

Then I adjusted the Sotheby's figures for inflation (above), using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. Again, the trend is up.* 

The sale totals for Christie’s (below) present a slightly different picture. My maths may not be as consistent when it comes to Christie’s, for they’ve had a tendency to move sales around a bit, or hold one-off sales such as ‘the Art of France’, which would ordinarily go into an Old Master sale. In some years I’ve had to go into the sale results and subtract sculpture sales. In cash terms, Christie’s overall trend is up over the last ten years, but only just. Their London sale total trend rose steadily until 2012, but has then been gently falling (and this year, crashing). This pattern, I’m sad to say, fits Christie’s tendency to lag Sotheby’s in the Old Master market recently. Why this has happened is worth a post in itself (and bad luck has played a part, as in the Beit Collection fiasco), but suffice to say momentum can shift very quickly in a duopoly - and I'm afraid Christie's needs to undergo some radical changes. 

Nonetheless, if we add Christie’s overall sales total to that of Sotheby’s, then we might be said to be looking at a broadly representative snapshot of the global Old Master spend over the last ten years. (Obviously, I’m afraid this excludes private treaty sales by the auction houses, as well as other strong centres of Old Master sales, such as Dorotheum in Vienna, not to mention salerooms in Paris and Germany.) As you can see below, in cash terms, the trend is broadly up. It’s also interesting to see that there wasn’t the massive dip in Old Master sale totals around the time of the 2008/9 recession, as happened in other sectors of the art market. By way of comparison, if you’d put all your money into the FTSE100 in 2005 (and not reinvested dividends) you’d only be marginally better off in 2015, and the intervenind decade would have been quite a scary ride. And of course it was only this year that the FTSE100 surpassed the level it reached back in late 1999.

Anyway, if we then adjust the overall sale total figure for inflation (again, only on the Bank of England’s inflation data) then the trend is... pretty much flat. 

And that, I’m afraid, is the boring truth about Old Master prices. They have always tended to remain static and frankly, the sooner we stop talking about art as an ‘asset class’ the better. People don’t, and shouldn’t, enter the Old Master market for investment purposes. As far as investments go, Old Masters have only ever been a medium to long term store of value. Art in any case is an illiquid asset, and the margins to get in and out are sizeable. The profitable ‘flipping’ we see in the modern and contemporary sector is a relatively new phenomenon. Most people buy Old Masters because they like them, and that’s as it should be. 

I’m aware that only ten years worth of data is not enough to draw long term conclusions, and that flatlining sale totals are hardly news. We can also see perhaps begin to discern increasing volatility over the last few years (which I suspect is linked to the major dealers no longer bidding as much as they used to). But the point is that for about ten years now we’ve also been told consistently that ‘taste’ has changed, and that Old Masters are a shrinking sector. Well, even if my maths is a little out, the numbers just don’t confirm that thesis. In fact, if we accept that this year’s sale totals are unusually low because of the lack of any major consignments over £10m, then the data actually shows Old Master prices rising strongly above inflation.

Finally, we come onto the fundamental question of whether we can be sure that people still actually ‘like’ Old Masters? Is there ‘depth’ in the Old Master market, even without a floor of dealers to underpin prices (as you get in most other auction markets)? I think so. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s ‘Day sale’ totals in December were quite healthy, as, to be fair, Scott Reyburn points out in his latest article. Sadly, I have no hard data to prove whether people in general do or don’t like Old Masters any more or less than they used to. But I did notice people queuing to get into ‘Late Rembrandt’ at the National Gallery in London last year. I was amazed at the public response to the National Portrait Gallery’s appeal to buy Van Dyck’s ‘Self-Portrait’. And I still see visitor numbers at ‘old art’ galleries like the Frick in New York and the National Gallery in London rising healthily. I may simply be an art loving an optimist - and yes, one with a vested interest**- but I’m not giving up on Old Masters yet. And I wish others would stop claiming to see any writing on the wall before it's actually appeared.

Update - an economist writes;

First it is absurd to speak of the Old Masters market as being homogeneous. It is like speaking of the Jewelry market where brooches are now less fashionable and colored diamonds are more fashionable with fluctuations in natural pearls. The same true of books and porcelains and furniture. 

Within the broad Old Masters market there are fluctuations in fashion. Vermeer was only rediscovered more than a century after his demise and some contemporary price leaders will be forgotten after their demise. Some changes in fashion occur as a result of scholarship and exhibitions and more because taste leaders decide to buy something that was unpopular and good value. American Hudson River School paintings were popular when painted then became were very inexpensive for nearly a century and then prices rose sharply especially during the past twenty years   Chinese and Indian art are rising in price because of newly wealthy collectors in those countries.      

There is a steady demand for Old Masters of quality and variations in demand based on subject matter and artist. Unsurprisingly, flower portraits were popular in the seventeenth century with the Tulip Bulb Bubble. Religious paintings of less than top quality are unlikely to become popular again for a long while unless the Second Coming occurs.

Aggregate auction results are misleading and only reflect that which is currently for sale. The data don't include private sale increasingly arranged by what were just auction firms.

The supply of top price Old Masters in the market in any auction is small and unpredictable as increasingly they are donated or sold privately to museums.   And unlike contemporary sales, an auction firm can't call an investor/collector and suggest a great deal with guarantees and negative fees if he sells a couple of pieces that he bought in the soft market six years ago. Owners of Old Masters tend to be long term collectors as is evident from reading the provenance of important works. They are owned for decades or across generations.

In all Old Masters collecting isn't a field that can provide an immediate supply of works to a new insatiable collector but, like a good marriage, can provide great satisfaction to a long term participant.

Update II - Michael Savage, who is head of Traded Credit Policy at RBS, but online writes as The Grumpy Art Historian, has weighed in to disagree with AHN, as he often does. I don't think he quite understands how the art market works; but it doesn't stop him from declaring the Old Master market 'dead'.

The thing is, he does so without actually disagreeing with the evidence presented above. Instead, his point is that the Old Master market must be dead, because when compared to the Modern and Contemporary market, sale totals rising with inflation are not good enough. He says, for example:

The important question is what you're comparing against. The value of money itself changes, so you have to adjust for inflation. But over time economies tend to grow, so any sector simply keeping up with inflation isn't doing so well. Sectors wax and wane, of course. But if the auto industry is booming and Ford's sales are increasing in double digits, it's not enough for General Motors to say they're doing great because their sales are in line with the overall economy. Bendor's charts show old masters just about keeping up with inflation at a time when the potential market is booming because there are far more very rich people in the world, with far more disposable income. It's just that they're spending that income on modern and contemporary art, which is booming. That can't be explained away as a speculative bubble, because it's supported by strong market demand that's boosting all kinds of luxury products—except old master paintings.

He concludes this section of his post by saying that because asset growth these days is sluggish people are diverting their rising disposable income to consumption like art; 

So it makes sense for the elite to divert resources towards consumption—which, again, is exactly what we've seen in the luxury good industry, and in every sector of the art market except old master paintings. Old masters really are the anomaly.

First, let's just deal with the comparison to the car industry. Yes, General Motors and Ford can be compared as indicators of the modern car industry. But to stretch that argument to the world of Old Master Paintings and contemporary art is plain wrong. It's like saying the classic car market must be compared to modern car sales. Both markets may deal in the same product - cars - but they're very different beasts. It still surprises me that so many observers see 'the art market' as something homogeneous, to be compared with from century to century.

Here's why it isn't. The Old Master market covers five centuries of art. The Modern and contemporary market covers one at the most. As I tried to explain in my post above, changes in taste and fashion exist within the Old Master market (e.g. gold-ground paintings and Tudor portraits). It's just that because they get subsumed within the wider Old Master category, in which some areas have fallen (such as 18th Century Italian religious art) they're harder to notice. If Christie's and Sotheby's had a dedicated sale every year for 15th Century gold ground paintings, people would doubtless say 'Aha, the Really Old Master market is booming'.

Then there's the fact that the modern and contemporary market are fuelled by some people who bid not just because they like the pictures, but for speculation and investment purposes. It's impossible to deny this, although somewhat naively the GAH thinks everyone only buys contemporary art for consumption, like a luxury good. When of course it's partly because the returns on modern and contemporary art have outstripped other asset classes like stocks and shares ovedr the last few years that we have the sort of booming modern market that we've seen over the last seven or eight years. We also have dealers bidding for the work of artists they represent, because auction prices are seen as good benchmarks of 'value'.

None of this happens in the Old Master market. There are far fewer vested insterests. Remember, in an auction-led market, it can only take a handful of extra bidders to set prices on an upward trend. And as I have tried to explain, the Old Master market is also affected by the decline of the old-fashioned retail dealer model (for example, dependence on more private buyers has led to increasing volatility).

In other words, one end of the art market (the contemporary and modern sector) is a quasi-financial asset market. The other, Old Masters, is not. Inevitably, this has a bearing on prices and trends. So the fact that Old Master sale totals tick along roughly in line with inflation cannot be seen as a sign that the market is 'dead'. If it was a dead market, nobody would be bidding. And trust me, I would love to buy a Titian for peanuts. In any case, how can we really be sure that the modern and contemporary sectors won't have a more significant correction over the next decade? It's too early to tell.

To recap, I am not for one moment trying to say that taste has not changed, and that many people these days are buying contemporary art and not 'old' art. All I am trying to argue is that the Old Master market is not in its death throes, as some people say it is.

A few other points. The GAH somewhat betrays his ignorance of the complexities of the Old Master market when he writes this non-sequitur:

And there are still plenty of dealers buying at auction and then selling retail in Mayfair or at Maastricht. I think the bigger story is that old master dealers are being squeezed in a declining market, not that their old business model has suddenly failed.

He can't have it both ways. Either there are still plenty of dealers buying retail for Maastricht (who are they? I don't know them, and neither do the auction houses. Discoveries are the life-blood of the trade at the moment). Or they're getting pinched by a declining market.

The GAH also adds this point;

[...] the only element [of my figures and price comparisons, above] I really object to is comparing performance with the FTSE without reinvesting dividends, which is meaningless (do we assume the dividends were just eaten?).

Why is it meaningless? Art pays no financial dividend, so we cannot compare one asset class as growing with compound returns, but not another. And of course many people do spend their dividends.

Update III - an art dealing reader writes:

Thanks for your insightful analysis of current the OM art market. There is one thing, in my view, that also should be taken into account and that concerns whether or not a picture is fresh to the market. If a picture is sold at auction, in dirty state and with a horrible frame, and is offered again in a rather sort span of time, this time cleaned and with a nice appropriate frame, it is in a way difficult to compare. The difference is the appeal of something fresh to the market versus something with an aura that it has been around in the trade recently. Moreover, dirty pictures often have the promise that they will clean beautifully, which is of course not always the case.

For example, the small Hobbema that failed to sell at Sotheby’s this month. The picture was sold in 1990 at Christie’s for 550k sterling hammer and subsequently offered by Noortman. It failed to sell at Christie’s NY in 2004 and at the time the auctioneer said to me technically it is private property for years. Two weeks ago it was bought in at Sotheby’s at 290k sterling, which is (inflation take into account) about a third of the amount it was sold for in 1990. It appears that the picture was purchased in 1990 by an investor who gave it in consignment to Noortman (who asked fl 2.4 million for it but never sold it). It seems to me that the fact that it failed to sell this month has much to do with the circumstance that it has been available since 1990. If so, it proves how important it is that paintings are truly fresh to the market. Therefore it is difficult to compare results of pictures at public sales since paintings are another type of commodity than oil or diamonds.

Yes, this is all correct, and one reason why it's so difficult to take single pictures and use them as overall indicators of a market. When the Hobbema was first sold, there were so many other factors affecting its desirability, to both the trade and private buyers. And again, so many of these factors do not affect the modern and contemporary market. 

Update IV - an economist makes the point more succinctly and better than me:

The relevant point, and the only relevant point, that the distinguished RBS banker makes is that the Old Masters market, such as it is, has a declining share of total art sold. How it is sold whether at auction or by dealers in galleries or at fairs is of importance only to the sellers.  To compare total volume of sales of a luxury good with declining supply to goods which are currently manufactured, namely Ford cars and contemporary art, is unrealistic. A realistic measure of the Old Masters market would be a price index or price indices for each major artist. Total volume keeping up with inflation with declining units available for sale indicates that there is some real growth per unit in inflation adjusted prices. Old Masters isn't booming like contemporary which is art, an asset class for investors, filling new museums, and decorating contemporary residences. It is more than holding its own.  

I wouldn't suggest becoming an Old Masters dealer because supply is declining, Old Masters can't supply enough art for new collectors needs, much of the subject matter is undesirable to non Western collectors, it doesn't provide the lively social life that contemporary events provide, and it isn't a growth business.  But if you love the art there is enough around and there are enough buyers for an individual dealer to have a reasonable business. Just watch your inventory, keep you overheads and leverage low, and buy well     

As an asset class art in general [it] holds its own while individual names and sectors have each had their era.  Few do well across centuries and these become the next “Old Masters.”

Update V - a collector writes:

[...] the more OM are slagged off the more confident I become.

Update VI - a reader writes:

Here are a few more arguments in support of your valiant defence :

1.     Old Masters market is not dead, just quiet. Contemporary art market is on a high, just as it was at the end of the 19th century (Jules Breton, Ernest Meissonier… Do you remember them ?) and for the same reasons (new, uncultivated billionaires in a time of shifting economics and easy money).

2.     Contemporary Art market “indexes” or “trends” do not take into account the “centrifugal effect”, almost undiscernible in the Old Masters market, by which artists disappear from the market, without a trace.

3.     Of course art pays a dividend, an aesthetic one. For collectors, not speculators, this is the one and only reason they do collect.

* The trend lines are automatically made by Excel, not me and my optimistic ruler.

** Although the meagre handful of pictures (I'm sorry to report) that I might sell a year is neither here nor there.

Sleeper Alert

December 2 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert


The above small canvas (50 x 31.5 cm) came up in Austria the other day as 'Attributed to El Greco'. As such, a price of €54,000 wasn't too unusual. But the estimate of €400-€800, with a starting bid of just €200 certainly was cheap.

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