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The 19th Century Market – 2019 Wrap Up

December 30, 2019

Most reports base their assessment of a specific market’s strength or weakness on the number of works sold and totals generated.  As I am sure you can guess, the biggest issue with this is that each year different works are offered, and the number of estates coming to the market varies.  2018 was a banner year for estates, while 2019 was rather slim.  While I will compare 2018 to 2019, it is important to remember that the quality, condition, desirability, and number of works offered are not consistent. What I will say is that looking through all the results, 2019 was an interesting one for the general 19th Century market and when the right works hit the block, prices were very strong (w/p = with premium).

William Bouguereau’s Le Livre de Prix

William Bouguereau’s Le Livre de Prix

I will begin with the month of February, a month that will beautifully illustrate the difficulties of comparing one year to another. In 2018, Sotheby’s 19th-century sale featured mid to low-level works and included Old Masters.  The total for that sale was $2.92M and the top lot was Rudolf Ernst’s The Musician – $93,700 w/p.  In 2019, Sotheby’s decided to focus its sale on the upper end of the 19th-century market (no Old Masters) and were able to generate $16.1M – the top lot was William Bouguereau’s Le Livre de Prix – $1.275M w/p.  In fact, the top three lots of this sale generated $3.65M … more than the entire 2018 sale.

Julius Stewart’s Five O’Clock Tea

Julius Stewart’s Five O’Clock Tea

Then in May of 2018, Sotheby’s offered another 19th-century sale, this time including a selection of important paintings (not offered in their 2018 February sale) and they came in at $13.6M – the top lot here was William Bouguereau’s The Pony-Back Ride – $1.76M (about 13% of the total sale).  One year later, 2019, the similar sale brought in less than half that amount — $6.39M; with Julius Stewart’s Five O’Clock Tea generating $1.9M (about 30% of the sale).

Now, when we combine the two sales from each year it would appear that year over year the 19th-century market gained a good deal of strength. (APPL = average price per lot):

2018: 435 works offered, 335 sold (77%), total $16.5M, APPL $49.3K
2019: 292 works offered, 214 sold (73.3%) total $22.5M – APPL $105.1K

In November of 2018, Christie’s London created an evening sale featuring Modern British Art and that sale generated £17.9M – top lot was L.S. Lowry’s A Northern Race Meeting – £5.3M w/p.  In addition, they had a day sale – £4.4M – and a British Impressionist sale – £1.87M. So, the 2018 total for this group was £24.14M. This year there was no evening sale; in fact, there was just one sale and all it could achieve was £2.34M – top lot was Dame Elizabeth Frink’s Dog at £163K.  That was a far cry from the 2018 offerings and results.  From that set of sales, you might surmise that the market tanked over the past 12 months.  What really happened is that there was far better, and much more, Modern British material available in 2018 than in 2019.

I also went through all of the 19th-century sales that took place at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in 2018 and 2019 and came up with the totals generated:

2018 – New York: $46.2M … London £61.8M
2019 – New York: $50.4M … London £76.5M

This shows an 8.7% increase in New York, compared to a 21.3% increase in London; so, the overall trend appears to be positive.  In addition, 2019 saw some very impressive results and among the best were:

Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Girl Reading

Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Girl Reading

Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Girl Reading sold for a record £5.7M (£6.32M/$7.8M w/p)
Osman Hamdi Bey’s Koranic Instruction brought £3.9M (£4.6M/$6M w/p)
Gustav Bauernfeind’s Market in Jaffa  £3.1M (£3.7M/$4.8M w/p).
John W. Waterhouse’s The Soul of the Rose made $3.9M ($4.7M w/p)
Gustav Bauernfeind’s Forecourt of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus sold for £3M (£3.61/$4.67M w/p)
William Bouguereau Chansons de printemps sold for $3M ($3.6M w/p)
Sir Alfred Munnings’s The Bramham Moor Hounds at Weeton Whin, hammered for £1.8M/$2.26M (£2.17M/$2.7M – w/p)

The biggest takeaway from this is that good quality 19th-century works will continue to attract interest and generate impressive returns.  While auction results are an important part of the overall picture, they are just that, a part of the picture.  So much great art never finds its way to the auction block, and we will never really have a precise picture of the market since so many works are sold privately.

For those of you who are still looking to build your collection, be careful, do your homework, research the people you plan on buying from, find true experts in the field, and build strong relationships with them.  My favorite saying still holds – the art world is a jungle, so make sure you find the right guide before you become someone’s next meal.  If you do not believe me, just read all the Dark Side articles Alyssa has posted over the year – there are a lot of bad people in the art world.