After the extraordinary price achieved by the Salvator Mundi in a Post-War Evening sale one wondered whether conventional Old Masters would fare so well in a conventional Old Masters sale. The Leonardo story was still dominating the art news last week with conflicting accounts as to who actually bought it, even though it is now clear that the painting will be going to the Middle East. The December sales often have less to offer than their July counterpart and this year was no exception. However, both houses had paintings of real interest and these generated competitive bidding.
The Old Master sales showed a significant improvement on thise last year, totaling an increased volume of just over 75% year on year. Nicholas Hall was active, bidding on the Cranach Lucretia for a client, the Spranger, and buying a beautiful oil sketch by Landseer. Here are our observations.
Astonished and baffled, many of us are probably still trying to make sense of the $450 million Leonardo. The freakish price, which made over $300 million profit for the seller who originally felt to have overpaid at $127 million, far exceeded everybody’s expectation. It challenged our preconceptions about the art world mechanics and brought on a slew of questions: how did the work manage to sell for such an astronomical figure? How will this affect the Old Masters trade? What does the price mean for the condition-conscious Old Masters market? What does it say about the art market in general?
A year ago the Duke of Northumberland sold, at Sotheby’s in London, a remarkable panel painted in about 1300 by an exceptionally rare artist, Giovanni da Rimini. The panel was acquired at the auction by the American collector and founder of New York’s Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder. He has generously donated this panel to the National Gallery in London and, to celebrate that, the National Gallery has assembled a dazzling little exhibition which reunites the ex-Northumberland panel with its companion piece, as well as showing alongside them other works that speak to the old Byzantine and new Giottesque currents which would have influenced the artist in 1300.
In addition to the auctions of Old Master paintings and drawings at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonham’s, there was plenty of activity in London from the trade this July. Agnew's celebrated its 200th birthday at Spencer House, Colnaghi gave two lively parties, the Masterpiece fair drew crowds to the Chelsea Royal Hospital, and over 30 dealers participated in a series of exhibitions during London Art Week. These exhibitions, mounted by many of Europe's foremost galleries, give dealers an opportunity to show how they represent an interesting alternative to buying at auction. Galleries exercise taste, expertise, and patience, and at any one of these shows it was possible to find things of real merit at all price points.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s assembled extremely respectable Old Masters sales this summer. The good news was the impressive sell-through rates at both houses, even for material that had not just come out of some ancestral home. Also, despite talk about the shortage of supply, there were plenty of very good Old Masters of most schools on offer this year. It was reassuring that both top lots found buyers, reinforcing the well-worn adage that we live in a ‘Masterpiece Market’.
For what it is worth, Christie's Old Master Paintings Department took market share in New York following a successful sale this April. The centerpiece of Classic Week, the sale exceeded expectations largely on account of the impressive price achieved for a single painting, the success of the other offerings from the collection of which that formed part, and competitive bidding for a rare Netherlandish panel recently plucked off the walls of the Met.
After a succession of recent TEFAF fairs at Maastricht had left visitors and exhibitors underwhelmed there were concerns that this legendary event had lost its luster. However, despite modest expectations there were many collectors and dealers who judged it a success.