Previous Posts: February 2023

Apologies (ctd.)

February 17 2023

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I'm deep in book writing purdah!

Update - Further apologies for the long silence. One of the problems, and pleasures, of book writing is that it takes up all your mental energy. Or it does mine, anyway. The book by the way is a history of British art, out next year!

New York Old Master sales (ctd.)

February 6 2023

Image of New York Old Master sales (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

I've been meaning to write something about the Old Master auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York. The Van Dyck I liked so much made $3m. Eileen Kinsella has pretty much all the news covered on ArtNet:

The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

It's nice to see some positive news coverage about the Old Master market for a change. I added up the sale totals from both Christie's and Sotheby's major Old Master sales in New York over the last five years, and it does indeed look like the figures from last week show an upward trend. Although a caveat here is that Christie's keep moved their sale around quite bit, partly affected by the pandemic. Sotheby's sales were all in January.

  • 2023 Christie’s (Jan) $64.5m Sotheby's $91m Total $155.5m
  • 2022 Christie’s (June) $35.1m Sotheby’s $98.6m Total $133.7m
  • 2021 Christie’s (April) $20.8m Sotheby’s $122m Total $142.8m
  • 2020 Christie’s (Oct) $26.1m Sotheby’s $70.7m Total $96.8m
  • 2019 Christie’s (May) $48.3m Sotheby’s $64m Total $112.3m

I also heard positive things from Old Master dealers at the Winter Show fair at the Armoury. That said, I doubt we can expect the 'Old Masters are in decline' narrative to shift from media outlets like the New York Times anytime soon. The NYT has not reported on the sale results, despite its very gloomy pre-sale assessment, here.

As regular readers will know, in my view the comparison with the contemporary art market is unfair. That sector is dominated by buying as speculation, and even within the contemporary market, there are areas of success and failure, against which the plodding reliability of Old Masters can be made to look attractive. Compare the Old Master sales to NFTs, for example, and you could present a very different view of the merits of investing in old art versus new.

There is one other point that needs to be made about the Old Master market, and this concerns estimates. I keep seeing reports that Old Master sales were 'lacklustre' or 'muted', because prices did not soar away above estimates. But this misunderstands the purpose of estimates these days. As a guide to what a sale will make overall, they are pointless. Estimates are part of the selling process, not an unbiased view of a picture's value. They represent the constant balance auctioneers have to strike between seller's expectations and buyer's appetites.

For example, the Rubens sold by Sotheby's in New York from the Fisch Davidson collection made $23.5m hammer price, and $26.9m with premium. But the estimate was $25m-$35m. So most observers might say, it failed to live up to expectations. But that's wrong, for the very high estimate itself represented a record for a Rubens of this kind, and would have been part of the auction houses' marketing, when it came to finding an irrevocable bidder (which is how this picture was sold). Imagine trying to persuade someone to place a pre-sale irrevocable bid on a painting before a sale if the estimate is low, as a way of getting potential bidders interested. Now, you might say, that's an unorthodox way to sell a picture. But remember, a sale is a sale. The days of auction houses simply taking items from a consignor, putting them on a wall, and waiting for buyers to come along and bid are long gone - and that's true even in the contemporary world, where the whole process of guarantees comes from.

Similarly, I've seen it reported that Christie's offering of the Safra collection of Old Masters was 'fell short of expectations', because it made only $14.7m total hammer price ($18.5m with fees), against a pre-sale estimate of $19.2m-$28.8m. However, the Safra sale was a 'no reserve' sale, which meant that in theory the Turner estimated at $1.5m could sell for $1. In other words, in this case, the estimates were designed to reflect the potential bargains on offer, so that potential bidders could see a $1.5m Turner, and think that buying it for anything less than $1.5m was bargain. If the Old Master market really was in decline, then having a sale with no reserves would have exposed that. Instead, everything sold pretty well.

By my count, 574 works in the Old Master category (not including drawings) were sold in the New York sales. It was the first time since 2015 that Christie's had their sales in the same week as Sotheby's. You could say that saturating the market with such a large number of works in one sale week represented a risk to the Old Master sector. And yet they all made solid prices. There's life in this market yet.

Fred Terna (1923-2022)

February 6 2023

Image of Fred Terna (1923-2022)

Picture: Fred Terna, via NYT

The New York Times has an obituary of a remarkable artist, Fred Terna, who survived no less than four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. What he saw in the Holocaust dominated his paintings, including 'Ascent in Fire' (above), painted in 2003. You can see more of Terna's work here

Who was the 'Master of the Countess of Warwick'?

February 5 2023

Image of Who was the 'Master of the Countess of Warwick'?

Picture: Duke of Bedford

In the later 16th Century there was an artist active in England who painted portraits in a distinctive style, but whose name has eluded us. They came to be known as 'the Master of the Countess of Warwick' after a portrait of the Countess of Warwick at Woburn Abbey (above) became the 'type' name for a group of portraits suggested by Roy Strong as all coming from the same hand. Now, an exhibition of this artist's work has been assembled at Compton Verney, and, from documentation, a name has been suggested as to who this 'Master' might be; Arnold Derickson. I had always hoped it would turn out to be a 'Mistress'. 

In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones reviews the show and gives it glowing praise. The show runs until 7th May, and you can find booking details here. There is mention of a catalogue, but I can find no further details on either how to order it, or the curators involved in this exciting work of art historical detection. 

The Master's/Derickson's style is quite identifiable; polished noses, tight lips, and somewhat buggy eyes. They quite often surface without any attribution at all. We found a nice one, of Mary Tichborne, when I was working for Philip Mould & Co (who I see are sponsoring the Compton Verney show). This portrait of Sir Richard Hawkins (below) in the collection of the National Maritime Museum is also, in my opinion, by him. 

Donatello at the V&A

February 5 2023

Video: V&A

This looks good - the V&A has a new exhibition on Donatello, opening 11th February. Says the museum;

The first major UK exhibition to explore the exceptional talents of the Renaissance master Donatello, arguably the greatest sculptor of all time. Experience a fresh vision of the artist and his influence on subsequent generations.

In the (excellent) video above, Lead Curator Peta Motture looks at the V&A's own marble by Donatello, 'The Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St Peter'. You can book tickets here

In the Observer, Lauram Cumming looks forward to what she calls an 'epochal show'.

Botticelli in San Francisco

February 5 2023

Image of Botticelli in San Francisco

Picture: De Young/Legion of Honour

A new exhibition of Botticelli drawings will open in San Francisco in November, including, they say (but don't illustrate) five newly attributed works. More here

'Pythagorean Visions' at Paul Mellon Centre

February 1 2023

Image of 'Pythagorean Visions' at Paul Mellon Centre

Picture: PMC

There's a talk on the role of maths and geometry in 18th Century British art on February 10th at the Paul Mellon Centre, by Dominic Bate. Says the PMC:

In the early eighteenth century, an eclectic group of artists and architects working primarily in London believed that they could improve the arts by placing their working practices on an unassailable mathematical footing. In this endeavour they were inspired by a concept of universal harmony, which held that the entire cosmos was organised by God according to the rules of arithmetic and geometry. This concept had ancient roots, being associated with the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, among others, but it assumed a new significance in Hanoverian Britain thanks to the work of antiquarians and natural philosophers such as Isaac Newton, whose scientific discoveries were hailed in terms of the recovery of lost knowledge.

It's online and free, and you can reserve a spot here

€43m Caillebotte for Musée D’Orsay

February 1 2023

Image of €43m Caillebotte for Musée D’Orsay

Picture: Forbes

From Paris, news of an astonishing donation to the Musée D’Orsay of a work by Caillebotte. "La Partie de bateau" was acquired byt he LVMH group directly from Caillebotte's heirs, and donated to the museum. More here from Alexandra Bregman in Forbes

Bouts pair restituted to Poland

February 1 2023

Two paintings from the workshop of Dieric Bouts have been restituted to Poland from a museum in Spain. The Mater Dolorosa and Ecce Homo had formerly been in the Czartoryski collection in the Polish village of Gołuchów, but disappeared during World War Two. (Of course, the greatest Czartoryski treasure still missing is Raphael's Portrait of a Man, so we can keep dreaming it might still be out there somewhere). James Jackson has the story in The Art Newspaper

New Burlington Magazine

February 1 2023

Image of New Burlington Magazine

Picture: HRP

The February Burlington Magazine is out, and is full of articles right up AHN's street. There are pieces on Van Dyck by Justin Davies, a newly discovered Rubens by Emilie den Tonkelaar, and Jacobite portraits by Edward Corp, all of which are worth the subscription alone.

There's also a fascinating review by Christine Slottvied Kimbriel of research carried out on the Duke of Buccleuch's Portrait of Sir Nicholas Carew. (Regular readers may remember that Adam covered the cleaning of this picture when it was sent on loan to a recent Historic Royal Palaces exhibition.) This painting was once attributed to Holbein, but was downgraded with some controversy by the late John Rowlands in his 1985 Holbein catalogue raisonne. I remember John telling me how upset the then Duke of Buccleuch was at the news. The latest technical analysis reveals however that John was entirely right, for the painting is not only not by Holbein, but from considerably later in the 16th Century. A key reason is the dendrochronology date; Ian Tyers' recent analysis shows the panel used to make the painting comes from a tree cut down no earlier than c.1585. Ian's analysis updates the findings of John Fletcher, one of the pioneers of dendrochronology, who in 1983 dated the panel to c.1528. 

Rare Tudor chain discovered

February 1 2023

There's news here in the UK this morning of a most spectacular metal detectorist's find; a gold tudor chain and pendant decorated with the initials of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. From The Guardian:

Charlie Clarke [above] had been metal detecting for just six months when he stumbled across what he calls his “once in a lifetime – no, once in 30 lifetimes”, find. He was exploring a Warwickshire field, turning up “junk” and about to call it a day, when a clear beep on his detector led him to dig to the depth of his elbow. What he saw there caused him to shriek “like a little schoolgirl, to be honest. My voice went pretty high-pitched”.

What the Birmingham cafe owner had discovered was a huge and quite spectacular early Tudor pendant and chain, made in gold and enamel and bearing the initials and symbols of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

It's now on display at the British Museum. Though check before you go, since the BM is now closed for a while due to strike action. 

National Gallery acquires Cavallino

February 1 2023

Image of National Gallery acquires Cavallino

Picture: Sotheby's

The National Gallery in London has announced its acquisition of a Saint Bartholomew by Bernardo Cavallino. It was sold last week at Sotheby's in New York, from the Fisch Davidson collection, for $3.9m. Personally, I'd have bought the Van Dyck of St Jerome if I was in the market for naked old saint; I suspect the Cavallino is very much in the Director's taste. But the main thing is, it's good to see the NG bidding for important pictures at auction like this. Here's the Sotheby's catalogue entry. There's no press release or further information on the NG site. 

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