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The 19th Century Auction Market — What Is Going On?

June 12, 2017

For some time now I have been watching the two main auction rooms put the 19th century European painting market on the back burner.  As we experienced last month (in New York), they crammed their American, 19th century European and Latin American sales into one week (some sales actually took place simultaneously)… that shows you the level of respect they have for those markets — not much. Let’s face it, when the price of one mediocre Contemporary painting can eclipse the total for an entire sale of 19th century works can you blame them? Well, I do!  If you do not want to support a particular market, then get out of it.

Scott Reyburn’s article in The New York Times touches on some of the issues, but they go much deeper.  One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the auction house’s need to fuel the contemporary market; a market they are heavily vested in with guarantees, etc. There is a constant need to find new money to buy into that market … and I have heard that they push wealthy “collectors” pretty hard … even those who have no interest in the period. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if the auction rooms stopped ‘investing’ in it themselves.  Let the works come up for sale and fall where they may.  That, of course, is just a dream since guaranteeing works is, at times, the only way they can pry major works loose and, as we have seen, there can be huge paydays — the recent $110M Basquiat sale is a great example.

On top of that, there is a serious lack of high quality 19th century works coming to the public arena and without them, there is just no way they can produce consistently strong results. They are also relying on a handful of consignors to supply works, many of which have recently appeared on the market (bought at auctions within the last 2-12 years). There just isn’t much diversity when you are feeding off the works you recently sold.  My question still stands: where are all the great 19th century paintings?

As I travel through the art world I see more and more interesting works appearing in galleries or peripheral salerooms.  This adds to the problem the New York auction rooms are having.  With all that in mind, we can no longer look at the 19th century sales in New York as a barometer of the market’s health.  The only thing those sales show is how difficult it is for them to source good material and the strength, or weakness, of the specific works they are offering.

It is my hope that the results from the recent sales will serve as a wake-up call.  It is time that the New York auction houses move the 19th century sales to their own week … how about sometime in April, before all the craziness of the Contemporary sales?

Gérôme’s “Bathsheba”

On a side note, Reyburn’s article discusses the poor result for Gérôme’s Bathsheba (offered in the recent Sotheby’s sale) — a painting his biographer, Fanny Field Hering, claimed a masterpiece. A masterpiece?  Really?  I can think of a couple I would rather have: Pollice Verso and Pygmalion and Galatea.  And just because the painting made $2.2M in 1990 — at the end of a BOOM market — does not mean it was worth that. All it shows is that at least two very wealthy people wanted it … and one of them GOT it.  Bathsheba will always be a valuable work of art (a value that will fluctuate depending on when it enters the market again); but more importantly, it is a beautiful painting by an important 19th century artist … an artist that has stood the test of time.

At this point I do not think anyone will disagree that 19th century European art is one of, if not, the most undervalued segment of the art market and offers a great deal of value for the money.  Keep in mind that history always repeats itself and over the past 150 years the 19th century European art market has gone in and out of favor. During the height of their careers, artists like Bouguereau, Gérôme, Meissonier, etc. were commanding record prices. By the 1920s, they were out of favor and could be bought for pennies on the dollar (literally). By the 1970s they were coming back and prices started rising … peaking in 2008. The financial debacle crushed many markets (the 19th century included) … some came back pretty quickly and others are taking a little longer. Since 2008 we have seen strong prices for high quality 19th century works … Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses brought $35.9M in 2010; his The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC sold the following year for $29.2M; in 2014 Firmin-Girard’s Le quai aux fleurs brought $3M on a $300-500K estimate (about 10 times the artist’s previous high) and in 2015 Gustave Courbet’s Femme nue couchée made a record $15.3M … the only issue, as I stated before, is that very few great 19th century works are being offered in the public arena so there is very little positive press.

For the Contemporary market the real question is: how many of the artists will stand the test of time?  It will be interesting to see where a Damien Hirst spin painting or a Lucien Smith abstract are 20 or 30 years from now.  Even more telling is where have they gone over the past 5 – 10 years … I think the answers will surprise you.  And in case you are wondering, think about this:  In 2014, Smith’s painting Mystic Pizza was sold in a Christie’s, New York, sale for $149,000 (est. $80-120K); the same work sold this year (less than 3 years later) in a Phillips, London, sale for $53,000 (est. $36-60K).  In 2008 Damien Hirst’s Beautiful, Shattered, Mellow, Exploding, Paint-filled Balloons Painting brought $931,000, the same work sold in 2013 (5 years later) for $648,000.  And in 2007 Hirst’s Lullaby Winter brought an impressive $7.4M at auction, in 2015 it sold for just $4.6M.  Funny how those results were never mentioned!

Anyway, I will continue to stress the importance of buying a work of art because you love it and want to own it … not because there may be a big payday since nothing is a guarantee.