Dealers Applauded the May Old Masters Sales’ Old-School Vibe: Few Guarantees, Reserves, and Less Pretense

The mid-season auctions proved a welcome counterpoint.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot, Les hauteurs de Sèvres - Le chemin Troyon (circa 1835-40). Image courtesy Christie's.

After all the fireworks of auctions and fairs, with a heavy emphasis on contemporary art, the art market is ending May on a quieter, more subdued note with a round of mid-season Old Master auctions to cap the month.

Though there are none of the head-turning seven- and eight-figure prices that mark the modern and contemporary sales, there is plenty of market action to keep an eye on. And without the smoke and mirrors of so many guarantees, these sales provide a more clear view of supply and demand. Christie’s and Sotheby’s this week each held a series of sales that were smaller but largely solid and hit their marks.

“I found the results of the Old Master sales tremendously encouraging,” said veteran Old Master dealer Robert Simon. “These were mid-season sales with mostly mid-market paintings, and few masterpieces. In recent times this might have led to disappointing results, as collectors and dealers pursued only the top lots. But here most paintings found buyers, with many selling over estimate.”

Christie’s started things off on May 24 by selling the final tranche of Old Masters from the J.E. Safra Collection, with the added incentive that there was no reserve, or minimum bid level, on any of the 74 lots on offer.

The overall sale total was $3.3 million, landing in the middle of the presale estimate of $2.9 million to $4.4 million. The top lot was a landscape painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Les hauteurs de Sèvres – Le chemin Troyon, (circa 1835-40), that soared far past its estimate to take $352,800, despite having a more modest estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.

According to the provenance, Safra had acquired it 25 years ago at a Christie’s London sale in June 1998. It sold for $158,500, or roughly half the current price, according to the Artnet Price Database.

Angelica Kauffman and studio, Penelope awakened by Euryclea with the news of Ulysses' Return Image courtesy Christie's.

Angelica Kauffman and studio,
Penelope awakened by Euryclea with the news of Ulysses’ Return.
Image courtesy Christie’s.

The second-highest lot was more in line with expectations, a painting by Angelica Kauffman, R.A., and studio called Penelope awakened by Euryclea with the news of Ulysses’ Return, that sold for $214,000 ($150,000 to $250,000 presale estimate). Kauffman, who was born in Switzerland and trained in Italy, came to London in 1766, where she rose to fame as one of the city’s most prominent artists. According to Christie’s catalogue, she and 34 other artists petitioned the king to establish a Royal Academy. The next year, she was one of only two women included in its first catalogue with the “R.A.” designation.

The Safra sale was 100 percent sold.

“What was surprising and heartening for these paintings, few of which could be considered exciting, was the degree to which there was sustained bidding,” Simon said. A “no reserve” auction “seems to make bidders look more closely at each lot, and that translates into greater involvement, greater interest, and greater competition,” he said.

The main, multi-owner sale at Christie’s, held on May 25, offered 82 lots, 88 percent of which were sold. However the sale total fell under the $3.3 million low estimate, bringing in a premium inclusive $3 million.

Giuseppe Vermiglio, Christ before Pilate Image courtesy Christie's.

Giuseppe Vermiglio,
Christ before Pilate.
Image courtesy Christie’s.

The top lot was also the only one to carry a guarantee. Giuseppe Vermiglio’s Christ before Pilate sold for $478,800 (estimate of $400,000 to $600,000). According to the catalogue, it was previously auctioned at Sotheby’s Milan in 2010 when it was believed to the work of Lionella Spada. It sold for $325,000 at that time, according to the Artnet Price Database.

“Christie’s had strong mid-season sales, with excellent results for Northern, Italian, French, and British works from the 14th to the 19th centuries,” said Joshua Glazer, specialist and head of private sales in the Old Masters department of Christie’s New York. “We continue to see a healthy Old Masters market, with collectors competing for objects at all price levels, and look forward to June in Paris and July in London, where we expect some major pieces to draw significant prices.”

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s held a total of three sales between May 24 and May 26. The first offering of 19th-Century works of art, featuring art from the The Muriel S. and Noah L. Butkin Collection Sold to Benefit the Cleveland Museum of Art, realised $1.1 million, right at the low estimate. Of 115 lots offered, 83, or 72 percent, were sold.

The top lot was a painting by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Valenciana a la reja, depicting a woman gazing out the window. It took $50,000, at the high end of the $40,000 to $50,000 estimate.

Jan Breughel the Elder, A village landscape with a market. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Jan Breughel the Elder, A village landscape with a market. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Master Paintings and 19th Century European Art sale, held on May 25, had the highest cumulative total of the series, at $5.4 million, but still missed even the low end of expectations ($7.7 million to $10.7 million). The top lot was a classic painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, A village landscape with a market, that sold near the top of the high $900,000 estimate for $889,000.Of 84 lots on offer, 57, or 68 percent, were sold.

The final Master Paintings Part II sale, held yesterday, took in just over $1 million and exceeded the $844,500 high estimate. The top lot was Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre’s Portrait of a King Charles spaniel, possibly “Pompon”, Marie-Antoinette’s favorite dog, which sold for $279,400, with a $3,000 to $5,000 estimate.

Sotheby’s said the year-to-date total for Old Master sales held in New York currently stands at $139 million, an increase from the same period last year, when that figure was $119.4 million.

“There were, as always, several lots that soared over estimate and many that failed to sell, but by and large these auctions reflected strength in the market at its core,” Simon said, speaking of the Old Master series overall.It is interesting that as the modern and contemporary auctions are ever more reliant on guarantees and third-party participants, the Old Master market seems to be finding success by returning to something approaching a ‘true’ auction.”


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