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Christie’s 19th Century – What Did They Expect?

April 23, 2021
portrait of a woman


On April 21, Christie’s offered up a selection of 19th-century European works of art. I will start by saying that when the catalog arrived, I felt like many of the works had been offered recently (I will get into that later). I even went to view the actual sale; I wanted an accurate understanding of the quality and condition of each piece.

horses and coach


The top seller was a painting by Jean-Francois Millet titled Portrait of Madame Martin. This 18 x 15-inch head and shoulder portrait was last on the market in 2011 (it made $230,500 then). The estimate was $200-300K, so the owner was willing to take a loss, but when the bidding was over, it hammered down at $500K ($625K w/p) – I am sure the seller was pleased with their profit. Taking second place was Sir Alfred Munnings’ The Golden State Coach at the Royal Mews. According to the provenance, it was originally purchased from the artist by Wildenstein and sold to a collector in 1966 (so it was pretty fresh). The only issue I saw was the artist added pieces to the canvas (extending its size); those seams were slightly raised and inpainted. Oh, and the painting was not signed. 

landscape with river and trees


That did not seem to bother people since the work was estimated to bring $100-150K and sold for $310K ($388K w/p). Another Munnings, from the same collection, captured the number three spot.  Willows on the Stour was a pretty impressionistic river landscape that they expected to bring $70-100K and sold for $240K ($300K w/p).

Rounding out the top five were Edwin Lord Weeks’ Lake at Oodeypore, India, estimated at $180-220K and sold for $230K ($288K w/p). This was one of many works that were offered before. Christie’s had it in their October 28, 2019 sale with an estimate of $250-350K, and it did not sell (more on this later). And in fifth was Dedham Mill Pool by Munnings, which made $180K ($225K) on a $50-70K estimate.

All three Munnings came from the same collection and were bought in the 1960s. Their combined estimate range was $220-320K, and they totaled $730K ($913K w/p). Guess that shows what can happen with fresh works.

Many sold works surprised me due to their lack of quality and/or condition issues. Two of the most shocking were paintings by Ziem and Seignac. From the photo in the catalog, Ziem’s Coup de canon à Venise, jour de fête seemed like it would be of interest to us. However, after viewing the painting, I was sure that due to its condition, it would not sell; here is the published condition report:

This work has a glue relining, and some of the original stretcher bars have been replaced. The surface is stable and clean. Examination under UV reveals that the retouches in this picture are concentrated in the sky and to the extreme edges, though there are a few small touches in the figural group at lower left. In the sky, there are retouches around the edge of the building at lower left, and a large cluster of retouches in the sky at upper left, halfway between the extreme left edge and the sails, measuring about 6 inches high. There is another group measuring about 5 inches high directly to the right of the sails of the foremost boat. There are also retouches in the areas between the sails at center.

In other words, this painting is a wreck. Did that stop people? Well, at least two did not seem to care, and the artwork made $75K ($94K w/p – est. $50-70K). I can only imagine what that painting would have made if it were in excellent condition.

Then there was Guillaume Seignac’s Cupid; first offered in their October 2019 sale with an $18-25K estimate, but the condition stopped people (published report below):

The canvas is laid down onto Masonite. There is a network of craquelure throughout. Upon inspection under UV light, there is inpainting to the figure’s mouth and eyes. There is a 2 inch horizontal line of inpainting and a 1 by 1 inch area of inpainting to the figure’s torso. There are two small spots of inpainting to the figure’s knees. There are a few small dots of inpainting to the background at right. What the report failed to mention is that the painting was overcleaned as well.

Then the painting was offered in the June 2020 sale with a $10-15K estimate and supposedly sold for $13,750. I guess the buyer never paid for it, so it was reoffered here with an $8-12K estimate and sold for $15K ($19K w/p).

When the sale ended, of the 88 lots in the catalog, only 85 were offered (they withdrew three due to an ownership dispute). Of the remaining 85, 56 sold (65.9%), and the total take was $3.1M ($3.87M w/p). The low end of their estimate range was $3.23M, so the hammer total fell a bit short. Of the offered works, 26 were below, 12 within, and 18 above their estimate range. When we account for the 29 unsold works, this gave them an accuracy rate of 14.1% – not the best.

Since this sale falls into my area of expertise, I decided to dig a bit deeper. To start, of the 85 lots, 29 (34%) had been up in the last two years (they went unsold in the earlier sales). Of the 29 lots, 11 failed again, and of those that sold, 10 made less, 3 within, and the rest beat their estimate. There was a Courbet portrait (not the prettiest model) that went unsold in June 2020 with a $60-80K estimate. In this sale, it had a $50-70K estimate and sold for $110K ($138K w/p), higher than its 2020 range – go figure!

Also, 12 additional works had sold in the last ten years, three of which appeared to have sold in their 2020 sale, but I guess the buyer reneged. Henryk Siemiradzki’s At the Fountain was one of them, supposedly selling in their June 2020 auction for $300K ($375K w/p – est. $150-250K). That would tell me that there were at least two interested parties. Well, this time, it was offered with the same estimate and did not find a buyer.

I found it interesting that this sale included 29 lots that were unsold in sales between 2019 and 2020, and when this sale ended, there were 29 unsold lots (not all the same, but still).

This sale illustrates the difficulty auction rooms are having. There is a shortage of great works coming to the market, so many auctions are filled with past rejects. Of course, new people are always coming into the market, so they probably have no idea that is the case. It will be nice to see what happens when a really strong sale, with a majority of fresh-to-the-market works, is presented. I hope that happens while I am still alive!!