London Old Master sales

July 21 2014

Video: Sotheby's

The main auction houses' post-sale videos are sometimes a little like estate agent pitches; everything is 'quite simply stunning', and the market is only ever going up and up. But on this occasion Sotheby's celebratory tone in the fabove ilm is entirely justified, for their £68.3m total for the 9th July evening sale (while still chicken feed compared to modern and contemporary) was their highest ever for an Old Master sale in London. Auctioneer Henry Wyndham was in superlative form, as ever.

It's an old cliche of the Old Master market that 'there's always a lack of great works' available to buy. That it's largely phooey is demonstrated by Sotheby's superlative gathering of works from a number of eminent collections, including from the Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Warwick. From the former we had the left wing of a diptych by Giovanni da Rimini, which made an energetic £5.7m (all prices include buyer's premium) against an estimate of £2m-£3m. I'm not (I'm ashamed to say) much of a fan of gold ground paintings, but even I could see the appeal of this one. Equally energetic was the bidding for the Duke's Garden of Eden by the Jan Brueghel the Elder, which was in excellent condition, and made £6.8m against an estimate of £2m-£3m. These days, if it's a work by any Brueghel in semi-decent condition, you can expect fireworks; apparently they are much admired by Russian buyers.

The Northumberland collection has a number of fine Van Dycks, and I was interested to see their 'Frances Devereux, Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset' up for sale with an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000, which I thought was a little on the cheap side. I'd seen the picture a couple of times at Syon House, in London, but it was always hung high above a door in a roped-off room and difficult to see, even with my usual limbo-like, binocular-holding contortions. Up close, Frances Devereux revealed herself to be in the most immaculate condition, with all the original glazes intact in the face and hands. In terms of condition, it was one of the best English-period Van Dycks I've seen. When you see pictures in such good state, it makes you weep for what we've lost over the years. In this case, it seems that the superb condition in the face, which helped convey powerfully Frances' somewhat stern characterisation, put some people off the picture, and it made a relatively low £662,500. There were also mutterings about the drapery, 'studio' said some. Perhaps it was, but it was par for the course with Van Dyck's later English portraiture. 

Another fine picture sold from above a Syon House door was Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of the Mohawk Chieftain Thayandanegea, known as Joseph Brant, which made £4.1m (est. £1m-£1.5m). The Stuart price, against the more finely painted Frances Devereux, highlights the subjectivity of portrait valuations.

Other highlights from Sotheby's evening sale included George Stubbs' 'Tygers at Play', which made £7.7m (est. £4m-£6m, Stubbs is hot at the moment); a Benedetto Gennari formerly in the Royal Collection (£506k); Joshua Reynolds' Boy with a Portfolio (£506k, another picture in great condition); Jacob Huysman's Portrait of the salacious Restoration poet, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (£602k); and George Romney's flamboyant Portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu, which set a new record for Romney at £4m (est. £2m-£3m). These last two pictures came from the collection of the Earls of Warwick, and were bought by the same buyer. As important British historical portraits, we may hopefully see them in a public gallery soon.

Sotheby's sold 80% of their lots, which was something of a contrast to Christie's, who only managed to get 35 of their 70 lot sale away. The Christie's total was a respectable enough £44.2m, and I believe they still hold the record for a London Old Master sale at £85m in 2012. Their headline lot was of course the Vermeer copy of a work by Ficherelli, Saint Praxedis, which made £6.2m. It seemed to me in the room that there was only a single bidder at around the £5.5m reserve. The buyer was seated in the far right hand corner of the room, and was attended to by one of Christie's Chinese-speaking staff. He was whisked out of the room by a side door as soon as the hammer came down. The top grossing lot at Christie's was a Guardi view of the Doge's palace, which made £9.8m. A Brueghel the younger Road to Calvary in almost mint condition made £5.5m. As a purveyor of English portraits I was very pleasantly surprised to see Joshua Reynolds' full-length Portrait of Lady Francis Marsham made £4.8m, having thought that the estimate of £3m-£5m was already too high. It shows how estimates are so often just best guesses.  

It's interesting to see how the sale totals fluctuate for both auction houses. Here are the totals for all July evening sales (the summer sales are usually seen as the more important ones) in London since 2006 (the furthest back I can easily get comparative results for):


2014 £44.2m
2013 £23.8m
2012 £85m
2011 £49.9m
2010 £42.3m
2009 £20.5m
2008 £24m
2007 £40m
2006 £27.4m

2014 £68.3m
2013 £35m
2012 £32m
2011 £48.3m
2010 £53.5m
2009 £32.6m (incl. approx. £6.5m Pisasecka Johnson pictures)
2008 £51.5m
2007 £25.5m
2006 £22.8m
I make that 4-5 in Sotheby's favour. The overall total since 2006 is pretty even, but again Sotheby's just nicks it with £369.5m, while Christie's have £357.1m.

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