Old Masters in London Bask Comfortably in £79 Million Week

A £30.3 million Turner for Sotheby's, a £866,500 Hendrick Bloemaert for Christie's.

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Sir Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Hendrick Liberti (ca. 1600-1669)
Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd 2014.
Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of George Craster
Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd 2014.
Hendrick Bloemaert, An Allegory of Winter, no date
Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd 2014.
Jan Cossiers, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, no date
Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
J.M.W. Turner, Rome, From Mount Aventine, sold for $47.4 million at Sotheby's London this past December.Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Adriaen Coorte, Three Peaches on a Stone Ledge, with A Red Admiral Butterfly, no date
Courtesy of Sotheby's.

The Old Master market is like a sleeping giant, raising its head when a few choice tidbits surface, but otherwise snoozing gently under the radar. At its most recent exposure, the Frieze Masters Fair in October, it was definitely in snooze mode as less than a handful of Old Master sales were recorded. London’s Old Master auctions were therefore an opportunity for it to spring to life again.

On December 2, Christie’s came in with one of the lowest estimates ever for an evening Old Master sale, £12–17.8 million, and then sold 27 (or 75 percent) of the 36 lots offered to total £13.9 million ($21.8 million). The intention, said department director Henry Pettifer, was to aim at a good selling rate by keeping the number of lots down below recent levels of 60, in which high bought-in percentages were recorded. This is a marked difference from the company’s contemporary-art policy of achieving market share at any cost, but a mission accomplished.

The top lot was van Dyck’s sensitive portrait of the composer Hendrik Liberti, not one of his better-known swagger portraits, which sold without much competition for £2.9 million ($4.5 million). The most notable record was the £866,500 ($1.5 million) given by a Russian phone bidder for Hendrick Bloemaert’s An Allegory of Winter against a £300,000 low estimate and underbidding from the dealer Johnny Van Haeften, who had paid £311,500 ($451,057) for the painting when it was last at auction, at Sotheby’s London in 2000. Demonstrating the polarities of taste among collectors, other purchases by Russian buyers included religious paintings and a pink fleshed Venus and Cupid by François Boucher.

Van Haeften’s only purchase at Christie’s was a stylish portrait of an unknown sitter by Bartholomeus van der Helst. He had bought it in 2001 for £135,000, and now bought again for £242,500 ($380,483), below the estimate.

It was a mixed night for the Brueghel family as two of the more highly valued paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Breughel the Elder, both works that had been on the market recently, went unsold. Interestingly, the top Brueghel of the sale, Pieter the Younger’s Rubensian A Country Brawl, provided a rare sighting of a Chinese buyer at an Old Master sale when it sold for £842,500 ($1.3 million) against a £700,000 low estimate.

Perhaps the liveliest bidding in the room came for a pair of handsome portraits of George Craster and his wife, Olive Craster, that were being sold separately by a descendant of the sitters. George, painted in his Grenadier Guard uniform by Pompeo Batoni, sold to dealer Fabrizio Moretti for £344,500 ($540,421) against a £100,000 low estimate (and several members of the London trade), while Craster’s wife, painted in more subdued tones by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, sold to a phone bidder against Moretti and a £30,000 low estimate, for £158,500 ($248,687).

Seasoned observers know that Sotheby’s has dominated the Old Master auction market for a decade in London, and once again its Old Master and British paintings evening sale on December 3 had more lots (43), sold a higher percentage (84 percent) of them, and achieved the more valuable sale than Christie’s at £54 million ($84.4 million), comfortably above the £32–45 million presale estimate. Twenty-one lots were sold at hammer prices above the estimate and seven auction records were set.

The star of the show was J.M.W. Turner’s oil Rome, from Mount Aventine from the British aristocratic Rosebery collection; it sold above the £20 million high estimate for a record £30.3 million ($47.4 million). The previous Turner record was £29.7 million ($45.1 million) for another view of Rome, also from the Rosebery collection, that sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2010.

Former Getty curator Scott Schaefer, who now works for Sotheby’s, was one of the unsuccessful bidders on Wednesday as it fell to a phone bid through Melanie Clore, the chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. Dealers were guessing the buyer was either Leon Black or David Thomson, a known Turner fan.

Other records of note were achieved by a hitherto unrecorded painting of decadence, Jan Cossiers’s The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which sold to a Russian buyer for £662,500 ($1 million) against a £100,000 low estimate; Jan Asselijn’s dramatic flood scene The Breach of the Sint Anthonisdijk on the Night of 5–6 March, 1651, which sold to Paris dealer Bob Haboldt for £602,500 ($942,430) against a £300,000 low estimate; and a still-life, Three Peaches on a Stone Ledge, by Adriaen Coorte, which sold for £3.4 million ($5.4 million) to a private European phone bidder. The Coorte was last auctioned at Bonhams in 2011 when it sold to William Noortman for £2 million ($3.2 million). Noortman then showed it at the TEFAF, Maastricht, fair in 2012 and sold it for a reported $4.2 million, so the return was considerable considering it was a high-profile and recently traded painting.

The best long-term return of the evening was a classic Pieter Brueghel the Younger painting, A Village Street with Peasants Dancing, which had been acquired by the seller in 1978 for 1 million deutschmarks (£267,738) and sold for £2.6 million ($4.1 million) to Van Haeften. The price had increased about 10 times in the interim, Sotheby’s George Gordon said. He went on to insist, “There is no shortage in supply of Old Masters.”

Certainly there seemed no shortage of supply or demand for 17th-century Dutch and Flemish pictures. Van Haeften went on to buy works by David Teniers the Younger, Jan van der Heyden, and Jan van Kessel the Elder. Another notable purchase in the room was made by Fabrizio Moretti, who bought Artemisia Gentileschi’s Bathsheba at Her Bath for £602,500 ($942,430) against a £200,000 low estimate.

At the final count, London’s Old Master sales, including Bonhams and the day sales, accumulated £79 million ($124 million)—not a record by any means, but comfortably at the top end of their combined £53.6–77 million presale estimates.

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