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The 19th Century at Sotheby’s – A Winning Hand

February 5, 2019
William A. Bouguereau "Le Livre de Prix"

William A. Bouguereau “Le Livre de Prix”

Sotheby’s bet big on their recent 19th-century sale and they came up with a winning hand.  While viewing the sale, I was a little concerned since they more than doubled the amount of work offered in recent sales, broke it into two sessions, and some of the works had issues. Well, on the day of the sale, buyers showed up and as you will see, they spent money.

Jules Breton "Le Matin"

Jules Breton “Le Matin”

Taking the number one spot was a late (1901) William Bouguereau titled Le Livre de Prix which carried a $1-1.5M estimate and hammered at $1.05M ($1.275M with premium – w/p).  In second was Jules Breton’s Le Matin that made $1M ($1.215M w/p) on a $400-$600K estimate; and in third was Frank Dicksee’s Yseult at $950K ($1.155M w/p) – that one fell just short of its $1-2M estimate. Rounding out the top five were Wilhelm Kuhnert’s Grollende Lowen at $525K ($645K w/p – est. $200-300K – the painting appeared in a 1987 sale in London and brought $88.5K), and William Bouguereau’s Innocence at $500K ($615K w/p – est. $350-550K … the last time this painting appears at a public sale was in 2002, and it sold for $273.5K).  With the buyer’s premium, all five works fell within, or above, their estimate range.

Frank Dicksee "Yseult"

Frank Dicksee “Yseult”

There were many other strong results at all levels of the market.  Continuing with the upper level, we had Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau’s La Captive which made and artist’s auction recordof $480K ($591K w/p – est. $250-350K … it sold back in 1999 for $222.5K); Jules Breton’s Sur la Route en Hiver; Artois made $300K ($375K w/p – est. $100-150K) – this painting had been shopped around for years, it was offered to us twice before; Émile René Ménard’s The Three Graces set an auction record $300K ($375K w/p – est. $35-50K) — the previous high for this artist’s work was $48K; Virginie Demont-Breton also established a new auction record when her Femme de Pecheur Venant de Baigner ses Enfants brought $440K ($543K – est. $100-$150K … it sold back in 2001 for $127K); Rosa Bonheur’s very early (she was just 22) Le Labourage also crushed its estimate when it hammered at $340K ($423K – est. $80-120K … it sold back in 2007 for $102K). Moving to the mid and lower level works, we found Cabanel’s small study for La Naissance de Venus which brought $140K ($175K w/p – est. $20-30K … it last sold in 2003 for $36K); Harlamoff’s An Auburn Haired Young Woman made $80K ($100K w/p – est. $40-60K … last sold in 2004 for $40K on a $2K estimate); Cave’s Portrait of a Young Girl fetched $50K ($62.5K w/p – est. $6-8K); Lefebvre’s Fatima brought $55K ($69K w/p – est. $25-35K); Zuber-Buhler’s Reverie hammered at $22K ($27.5K w/p – est. $10-15K); and a pretty Delpy landscape, Washerwomen at the Edge of a River, hammered at $12K ($15K w/p – est. $4-6K).  I mentioned Delpy because over the past couple of years, most of his works were going unsold at auction, and a majority of those that did sell were in the $1-5K range.  There were even works in this sale that, based on recent market trends, I would have bet would not sell, but did – guess we are beginning to see a change.

Wilhelm Kuhnert "Grollende Lowen"

Wilhelm Kuhnert “Grollende Lowen”

Of course, there were a number of paintings that failed to find buyers (some due to quality and/or condition issues, other because of their estimates).  Among them were works by Dagnan-Bouveret, Thirion, Carrick, Schendel, Waterhouse, La Touche, Knight, Piot, Perrault, Dawson, Corot, and Couture.

By the end of the two sessions, the numbers were pretty impressive. The morning session saw 61 of the 76 works offered sell (80.26% – I cannot remember the last time I saw that strong a number in the 19th century arena).  The 61 lots brought in $10.87M (low end of the estimate range, including the unsold lots, was $9.22M).  That was a strong showing given the fact that about 20% of the lots, which accounted for $935K of the low-end estimate range, did not sell.  Of the sold works, 23 sold below, 22 within, and 16 above their estimate range (at the hammer). When we add in the unsold lots, their accuracy rate was 28.9% — another reasonable number.

The afternoon had 141 works for sale, and 106 sold (74.65% – again, pretty strong), which added another $2.143M to the coffers (low-end of the presale range was $2.06M, which includes all the unsold works that accounted for $535K).  In this session, only 26 works sold within their range, leaving them with an accuracy rate of 18.4%.

When combined, the full sale brought in just over $13M ($16.1 w/p), and the presale range was $11-$17M; so, they fell into the range without the buyer’s premium. Not only is that a very strong result for a 19th-century sale, but when you factor in that 50 works (when combined, accounted for about $1.47M of the presale estimate range) did not sell, it is even more impressive.

Over the past 12-18 months, we have seen more interest in the 19th-century works of art, and you may have read that some of the paintings we recently acquired sold in a matter of minutes (often times not even making it to our website):

‘Wow Factor’ Lures Immediate Buyer Of 19th Century French Painting That’s Been Unseen For 118 Years

19th-Century French Oil Painting Emerges After 130 Years, Sells Immediately Amid Genre’s Hot Demand

We never recommend buying works for their investment potential since nobody knows what and when things will go in and out of favor.  What I can say, is that the financial crisis of 2008 pulled the legs out from under a number of markets.  While certain segments of the art market came roaring back pretty quickly, there were others that have been taking their time.  With prices for really great 19th-century works being so reasonable today, we may be at the beginning of an upward cycle.  While there are no guarantees, the results from this sale (and recent sales we have had) make it look very promising.