Last week, Sotheby’s presented a doubleheader — consecutive online-only Old Master sales in London and New York. What made these sales a little different is the fact that all the works were sourced from art dealers. We have all seen the difficulty the auction rooms are having sourcing good quality material, so obtaining works from top dealers is one way to get them. The idea was a good one, but the two sales had very different results. I will start with the London sale (w/p = with premium).
Taking the top spot was Sir Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of Hubert de Hot (from Fergus Hall). The painting carried a £120-180K estimate and hammered at £140K/$173K (£175K/$216K w/p). Next came John Cozens’s Lake Albano with Castle Gandolfo (from Daniel Katz Gallery), which was estimated to bring £120-180K and hammered at £120K/$148K (£150K/$185K w/p). In third place was Maestro de los Florida’s St. Michael Vanquishing the Devil at £100K/$123K (£125K/$154K/$115.7K w/p – est. £80-120k) – Sam Fogg Ltd consigned the work. Rounding out the top five were Jusepe de Ribera’s The Severed Head of St. Januarius at £75K/$92.5K (£93.8K w/p – est. £80-120K), and Xavier Bueno’s Self-Portrait of the Artist at His Easel, Half-Length, Aged 32 made £40K/$49K (£50K/$61K w/p – est. £40-60K).
Sadly, many works failed to find buyers; among them were paintings by Sorolla (est. £180-220K), Giovanno Angelo d’Antonio da Camerino (est. £150-200K), Auguste Vinchon (est. £100-150K), and Louis Lagrenee (est. £80-120K).
I watched this sale in real-time, and was puzzled by what was happening. The original ‘catalog’ presented about 68 works, but by the time the sale ended, the results only listed 60 works offered. We all know that there are times when works are withdrawn before a sale begins, and maybe a couple of these were. However, as I watched the sale, some of the lots just disappeared … yes, vanished from the screen before the bidding began. I could only surmise that the auction room was withdrawing lots during the sale – not something I have seen before. I did a little research and, according to one source, some of the dealers whose works were not going to sell demanded that they be immediately removed from the sale.
Once the sale ended, I started to go through the results and began to understand why they might have wanted lots that had no interest removed from the sale. Of the 60 works that were actually offered, only 25 sold (41.6%) – had they not removed the other 8 works, the sell-through rate would have dropped to 36.7%. The low end of the presale estimate range was £2.14M, and the sale brought in about £850K (£1.04M w/p) … very low.
Since I am not an Old Master dealer (though there were some 19th-century works in the sale), I really cannot say how these paintings stacked up against other works by the artists.
Shortly after the London sale ended, the New York sale began. I will state that I was unable to watch this one in real-time, so my comments are based on the posted results.
The most expensive work in this sale way Caspar Wolf’s View from the Muntigalm Across Lake Seeberg Toward the Stockhorn Chain that hammered at $200K ($250K w/p – est. $100-150K), the sellers, French & Co, must have been pleased. In a close second was Govert Flinck’s Portrait of a Lady in a Turban… that made $170K ($213K w/p – est. $150-200K) – this one came from Koetser Gallery in Zurich. That was followed by Paul Bril’s Coastal Landscape with the Calling of Saint Peter, which made $150K ($188K w/p – est. $150-200K) – this one came from a gallery in Vienna. Rounding out the top five were works by Carstian Luyckx at $80K ($100K w/p – est. $25-35K – I am sure that gallery was happy), and Hendrik van Cleve III at $75K ($94K w/p – est. 50-70K) – another happy seller.
There were a few big lots that failed to find buyers; among them were works by Martinelli (est. $150-200K), Sir Thomas Lawrence ($100-150K), and four in the $80-120K range (Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Leon Frederic, Jean-Michel Picart, and Pietro Benvenuti).
By the time the sale was over, of the 51 lots offered (and that was the full sale), 29 sold (56.8% – a bit better than the London sale), and the total take was $1.43M ($1.78M w/p). The low end of their estimate range was $2.32M, so they too fell short; also, 14 works sold below, 9 within, and 6 above their estimated ranges, which left them with an accuracy rate of 17.6%.
In addition to the auction rooms hosting online sales too frequently, they are also struggling to source solid material to offer. I understand a saleroom’s short term need to generate income, but they must also consider the big picture. By haphazardly piecing together sales, some segments of the art market are seeing auctions with staggering unsold rates… and the impact can have lasting effects on these specific markets, which may take months, years, and sometimes decades to recover.