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A Real Difficult One – Sotheby’s 19th Century European Sale

May 20, 2021
a man and woman in a doorway


I will begin by saying that when I first saw the offerings for this sale, other than a handful of works, I was not very impressed. Supply seems very limited, and what is coming to the market are either not great examples or have condition issues. After we went to view the actual sale, my suspicions were confirmed. We were in and out in under 30 minutes. I assume Sotheby’s also felt that the sale was not the best since it was an online-only sale, no live/phone bidding.

portrait of a young girl


The auction began at 2 pm, and was over pretty quickly. The number one lot was James Tissot’s The Proposal, which hammered at $850K (1.05M w/p – est. $900-$1M). Since there was only one bid, we can assume that the buyer paid the reserve price. Coming in second was one of the few lots I thought looked promising – William Bouguereau’s Yvonne. They expected the work to bring $400-600K, and it sold for $800K ($988K w/p – the seller purchased it in 1991 for $110K, so that was an excellent return). The number three spot saw Henri Gervex’s Yachting in the Archipelago, selling for $320K ($403.2K w/p – est. $300-400K). The seller bought the painting in 2017 for $264K, so they probably broke even.

elegant people on a yacht


Rounding out the top five were William Bouguereau’s Le travail interrompu (this last sold in 1991 for $88,000) and Sorolla’s Jardín de los Adarves, Alhambra, Granada (last sold in 2001 for $316K). Both paintings were estimated at $300-500K and sold for $280K ($353K w/p). At least the seller of the Bouguereau was happy!

a fish market


There were a couple of interesting results. The first was Owen Dalziel’s Fish Auction at Yarmouth; a large canvas (32 x 48 inches) that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883. The painting had a very reasonable estimate of $4-6K, which seemed to have sparked a bidding war (65 bids in all). When all was said and done, the work sold for $220K ($277K w/p). I should add that the artist’s previous highest auction price was around $13K. You know those sellers were jumping for joy! 

scene of venice

del Campo

The other is one that someone needs to explain to me. There was a del Campo that was a total wreck (overcleaning, lots of inpainting, etc.), and I would have bet it would never sell. The painting brought $32K ($40.3K w/p – est. $40-60K). Obviously, the seller wanted out of it and put a low reserve; but still, from my perspective, $40K for that painting is ridiculous.

As I am sure you can guess, there were a lot of paintings that did not find buyers… among them were Bouguereau’s Les enfants endormis (est. $200-300K), Bouguereau’s Avant le bain (est. $600-800K), Bouguereau’s La sérieuse (est. $300-500K – a very late and loose example), an atypical Gérôme, Promenade de la Cour dans les jardins de Versailles (est. $500-700K), Bartoletti’s Bacchante (est. $150-250K), and Béroud Les joies de l’inondation (est. $300-500K).

When the sale ended, of the 53 works offered, 35 sold (63% sell-through rate), and the total take was just $3.77M ($4.7M w/p). The presale estimate was $5.97-8.85M, so they fell very short. In addition, it appears that before the sale, eight lots were withdrawn. Of the sold works, 12 were below, 14 within, and 9 above their expected range. When we add in the 18 unsold works, this gave them an accuracy rate of 26.4% — which was better than some of the previous 19th-century sales.

Sadly, it is a lack of good quality material that is causing these results. What seems to be coming up at the New York salerooms are many mediocre works, which have condition issues and estimates that just do not reflect their true value.