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Christie’s European Art: Part 1 – A Lesson In What Not To Do

October 29, 2019
Waterhouse "The Soul of the Rose"

Waterhouse “The Soul of the Rose”

On October 28th, Christie’s presented their 19th Century works of art in New York.  Now I was a bit surprised when I received 2 catalogs in the mail – one for the morning session and another for the afternoon.  Since the market is very picky and one would expect them to create one really strong sale, this left me with the following question: why would you put what the saleroom felt were the choice lots into a tiny (24 lot) sale in the morning and then put the other ‘stuff’ in the afternoon?  It is not like there were hundreds of works being offered and they needed two sessions.  Well, as you will see, this turned out to be a big failure.

Bouguereau "Chansons de printemps"

Bouguereau “Chansons de printemps”

The sale started off with a small work (16 x 13 inches) by Theodore Chasseriau that was expected to bring $250-350K and it failed to sell –this same painting sold in 2014 for $147K.  This was followed by a small (12.5 x 9.5 inch) Delacroix which carried an $800-1.2M estimate and it too failed to sell.  The third lot was a nice Corot, but with a $500-700K estimate, and the fact that it sold just a few years ago for $378K, made for another failure. The fourth work was Courbet’s La Forêt en Hiver which carried an $800-1.2M estimate (seemed pretty steep to me) and it failed to sell … this one sold in 2007 for $421K.  You are probably getting the picture that this was not going to be a very successful session … so let’s get to some of the ones that did sell.

Rossetti "Proserpine"

Rossetti “Proserpine”

Taking the top slot was lot six – John W. Waterhouse’s The Soul of the Rose; a wonderful example in an over the top frame that was expected to bring $3-5M and hammered down at $3.9M ($4.7M w/p).  This work was offered back in 1994 with a £200-300K estimate and did not sell, then it appeared in 2007 with a more robust estimate of £1-1.5M and sold for £1.14M ($2.25M). Coming in second was a large Bouguereau titled Chansons de printemps which was estimated at $2-3M and sold for $3M ($3.6M w/p).  This painting was last on the market in 2007 and sold for $1.7M on a $1-1.5M estimate.  Rounding out the top three was a beautiful work on paper by Rossetti – Proserpine – that they expected to bring between $3-5M, but it fell a little short when it hammered for $2.9M ($3.5M w/p).

There really wasn’t much positive news in this sale and other works that could not find a buyer included those by Godward (est. $1-1.5M), Gerome ($500-800K), Ernst ($500-800K – this same work sold in 2015 for $191K … someone was being a bit greedy), Zorn ($300-500K), and a Blanche ($500-700K – this one last sold in 2013 for €280K/$362K on a €40-50K estimate).

By the end of the short session, of the 24 works offered, only 9 found buyers (that left them with a rather disappointing sell-through rate of 37.5% – almost 2/3 of the sale was unsold), and the total take was $14.5M ($17.5M w/p).  The presale estimate range was $20.7-31.6M, so they really fell short of their goal.  Of the 9 sold lots, only 3 sold within, and 6 below their estimate range … leaving them with an accuracy rate of just 12.5%.

This was a real lesson on what not to do.  Separate the most expensive lots from the rest of the sale, offer works that are not truly fresh to the market, and placing estimates that are not achievable. Hopefully, they will take a different tact in 2020. What is kind of funny is that a $17.5M sale of 19th-century works would normally be something to cheer about, but not in this case.