On July 4th, while we were celebrating our Independence, a group of dealers and collectors were enjoying a fairly successful evening at Sotheby’s Old Master sale in London. Taking the top position was Rubens’ Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman at £5.42M ($7.16M – est. £3-4M). Turner’s Walton Bridges squeaked into second at £3.376M ($4.45M – est. £3-5M) and Hans Baldung’s The Holy Family with Five Angels took third at £3.01M ($3.98M – est. £2.5-3.5M). Rounding out the top five were a set of 4 religious-themed panels cataloged as South Netherlandish School (c.1418-25) that made £2.65M ($3.5M – est. £1-1.5M) and a pair of portraits by Wright of Derby which garnered £2.41M ($3.18M – £2-3M).
In this field there are always some nice surprises; these included a collaborative work by Brueghel and van Balen which made £2.05M ($2.71M – est. £600-800K), a Durer attribution that brought £1.15M ($1.52M – est. £300-400K), a still life by Claesz at £550K ($727K – est. £150-200K), and these days no sale would be complete without a work that has a Leonardo connection … here, one titled Portrait of a Lady in Profile and cataloged as Circle of Leonardo da Vinci grossed £550K ($727K – est. £200-300K). On the other side, there were a few biggies that could not find takers – these included two by members of the Brueghel family (est. £2.5-3.5M & £600-800K), a Murillo (est. £600-800K), and a pair of paintings by Vernet (est. £1.8 – 2.2M).
By the end of the evening, of the 66 works offered, 51 (77.3%) found buyers for a total take of £46.6M (56.3M). The low end of the pre-sale estimate range was £33.18M, so they easily made that. The New York Times did point out that last year’s Old Master sale brought in £52.5M which means that this year’s total was down 19%; however, they also highlighted the fact that last year the sale included a Turner that sold for £18.5M. Like I always say, what a difference a painting or two can make.
The real takeaway from this sale is that great Old Master paintings are in short supply (at least at auction) and any evening sale will only be as good as the works being offered. Of the 66 lots, 9 carried estimates below £100K (one even had a £15-20K estimate … is that really evening sale material?). Another 9 fell into the £100-200K range and most of the works in the sale, about 49, carried estimates below £600K.