Victoria Beckham’s Favorite Rubens Painting Fetches $7 Million at Sotheby’s Very Posh Old Masters Sale

The sale delivered a solid $56.3 million total.

Peter Paul Rubens Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman (ca. 1620). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby's.

It turns out Victoria Beckham can indeed spice up the Old Master market.

After launching a curatorial collaboration with the pop star-turned-fashion designer last month, Sotheby’s achieved a solid £42.6 million ($56.3 million) at its Old Master sale in London on Wednesday evening. The figure fell toward the upper end of the auction’s £33.1 million ($43.8 million) to £47.7 million ($63 million) pre-sale estimate. (Final prices include the buyers’ premium; pre-sale estimates do not.)

Although the sale lacked a headline, big-ticket lot, the strong results across the board were boosted by celebrity cachet and attention from new buyers in Asia and Latin America. Still, the result fell behind the equivalent total for last year’s sale, £52.5 million, which was propelled by a record-setting £18.5 million painting by J.M.W. Turner.

This year, the top-selling lot—Beckham’s stated favorite artwork of the bunch—was Rubens’s Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman (ca. 1620). The work sold for £5.4 million ($7.1 million), comfortably surpassing its £3 million to £4 million pre-sale estimate and setting a new record for a single portrait by the artist. It was consigned by the Dutch collector Hans Wetzlar and hadn’t been on the market in more than 60 years.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of a Man with a Spotted Collar (1508). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Two other works that received Beckham’s blessing and were exhibited at her Mayfair boutique ahead of the sale also sold above their high estimates. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of a Man with a Spotted Collar (1508) sold for £2.4 million ($3.2 million), above its £1.5 million to £2 million estimate, while a 15th-century portrait of Mary of Burgundy attributed to the Netherlandish or South German school sold for £2 million ($2.6 million).

Sotheby’s secured a significant number of financial guarantees ahead of the sale (14 works were backed by an irrevocable third-party bids and guaranteed; 13 were also guaranteed by the house). The guarantee is an instrument most commonly used in Modern and contemporary sales, but investors are increasingly willing to bet on Old Masters, too.

One of those guaranteed works was The Oyster Meal by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jacob Ochtervelt. The painting, which was looted by the Nazis and only recently returned to the heirs of its rightful owners, fetched £1.9 million ($2.5 million), within its presale estimate of £1.5 million to £2.5 million.

Victoria Beckham X Old Master Paintings. Circle of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Chris Floyd.

The sale scored a sell-through rate of 77 percent, which might be mediocre for an Impressionist and Modern or contemporary sale, but is quite solid for an Old Masters auction. Previously, “a good sale would be around 65 percent,” Andrew Fletcher, Sotheby’s head of auction sales for Old Master paintings, told artnet News, “now our strategy in Asia and Latin America has propelled our sales to consistently perform 75-80 percent.”

“In general, I think the success of the sale is probably down to the quality of the material combined with the publicity in the lead-up to it,” Fletcher said.

Indeed, the house estimated that its celebrity-driven marketing campaign attracted over 7,000 visitors to its galleries in just five days—double the usual number. Fletcher explained that the initiative was designed to dispel some of the “perceived snobbery” that has surrounded the Old Masters genre. “I think the more we and others do this sort of thing, the more people are going to be attracted to our world,” he said.

The house also worked to expose the material to international audiences with less of a history of Old Master collecting. Sotheby’s chose to exhibit the Rubens portrait in Dubai ahead of the sale, its first-ever presentation of an Old Master work in the Middle East. It has also shown Old Master works in Hong Kong twice a year since 2012.

So far, these attempts seem to be paying off. Over the past three years, Fletcher estimates that 20 percent of the works in Sotheby’s Old Master sales have gone to Asian clients.

“There is much deeper bidding, not just from Europe and America, but our strategy in Asia and Latin America has made a real difference for us,” he said. “We’re now in a place where it’s incredibly solid and the future looks very exciting.”

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