Chasing Van Dyck

July 23 2014

Image of Chasing Van Dyck

Pictures: Sotheby's

Which might you expect to fetch more at a London Old Master sale - an excellently preserved portrait catalogued as 'Van Dyck' in full, of an interesting female, English sitter (left), or a dirty, hard-to-read portrait catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck' of a bearded Flemish civil servant (right)?

Yes, it's the bearded civil servant - as I'm sure you all guessed. The fact that a picture of uncertain status and condition can make more (£722,500) than a fully accepted, cleaned work (£662,500, both prices incl. buyer's premium) highlights one of the more puzzling vagaries of today's Old Master market, and why, when selling at auction, maximising the price is all about maximising the number of bidders, and not necessarily the amount of information you reveal.

On the left we have Van Dyck's Portrait of Frances Devereux, which was estimated at £400,000-£600,000 in the evening sale, and sold not only with impeccable provenance going back to the sitter, but also with a firm entry in the 2004 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's works. That portrait made £662,500 (which, as I mentioned below, I thought was cheap for a picture in such good condition). The picture on the right, of Baron Zaventem, only had certain provenance going back to the 2nd Earl of Warwick in the early 19th Century, and was excluded from the catalogue raisonne as a copy of a lost original. It was being sold as 'attributed to Van Dyck' by Sotheby's in their day sale. 

Those two magic words - 'lost original' - however, were enough to get the art trade excited about the picture's potential. Maybe (thought the numerous bidders who were either in the room or on the phones) this picture was in fact Van Dyck's lost original, and cleaning off the old varnish might reveal a work of autograph quality beneath. Encouraging for those dealers was the catalogue entry, which despite citing the opinion of the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes (who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonne) that it was 'a repetition', placed more weight on the view of Prof. Christopher Brown (who has also published widely on Van Dyck) that 'the quality of the face and certain other passages argue for an attribution to Van Dyck himself'.

Nothing fuels the art trade like optimism, and as a result, the picture made more than ten times its upper £70,000 estimate. However, you can be sure that had it been sold cleaned and fully catalogued as 'a Van Dyck', the portrait might only have fetched between two and three hundred thousand pounds.

Why’s that then? The key factor here was that the art trade saw an opportunity to 'add value'. They could (if all went well with their cleaning and re-presentation) point to the price paid and say, 'aha, but this was only sold as 'attributed to', but now look, we have cleaned it, and it is in fact all by Van Dyck'. And it's not hard to argue that they would be entitled to their profit, having taken a risk on the painting. With the Frances Devereux portrait, however, there was no value to add. Most dealers would only be able to ask a relatively low margin on the painting, as they'd effectively just be retailing the work. So in this case, it was only likely to be bid on by those private collectors who happened be interested in a Van Dyck on the night, and with the ability to pay the £622,500 in full within 30 days.

Because that's not many people (I recall seeing just two bidders for the Frances Devereux) the picture struggled to break its estimate. But equally, had it been consigned to the sale as the Baron Zaventem had, that is, dirty and with uncertain cataloguing, I’ve no doubt it would have fetched far more. All this is worth considering if you ever want to sell a painting.

Curiously enough, there were two other ‘maybe Van Dyck’ lots in the same Sotheby’s sale, both also from the collection of the Earls of Warwick. The lot immediately after the Baron Zaventem was a portrait dating from Van Dyck’s Italian period (1622-7), of an unknown sitter. It was being sold as ‘studio of Van Dyck’, and estimated at £40,000-£60,000, despite the enthusiastic views of the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, who was quoted in the catalogue as saying ‘she would not rule out its being partly or all by Van Dyck himself’. An old varnish and numerous re-touchings made it hard to be sure of the quality, but it sold for £410,500.

Personally, I thought it was indeed by Van Dyck himself, and a much finer portrait than the Baron Zaventem, which I thought was a brave purchase. Fans of the BBC series ‘Yes, Minister’ will know what I mean by a ‘brave’ purchase. Perhaps the most intriguing ‘Van Dyck’ lot, however, was the small sketch relating to the artist’s two versions of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Estimated at £12,000-£18,000 and catalogued as ‘Studio of Van Dyck’ as the lot immediately before the Baron Zaventem, it made £86,500 (inc. premium). The buyer (a friend of mine) is convinced it’s ‘right’ as we say in the trade, and so am I. I'll tell you why another day.

The unusally well attended saleroom (for a day sale) thinned dramatically after the trio of 'Van Dyck's' sold.

Update - a sharp-eyed reader writes:

By extraordinary coincidence, just days after looking at the day sale catalogue,  I came across this copy of the Baron [on Your Paintings in the collection of Sheffield Museums, where it was listed as 'Portrait of a Gentleman, Dutch School', image below].


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