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Old Masters – Sotheby’s, London

July 8, 2021
marine painting featuring ships in a rough sea

Joseph Mallord William Turner

It is Old Master week in London, and the action started at Sotheby’s with their evening sale, which began at 6 pm, so it was an actual evening sale.

portrait of a man, woman and two children

Sir Anthony van Dyck

The sale consisted of 50 lots, and the top work was the last one — Joseph Mallord William Turner’s 1808 Purfleet and the Essex Shore as seen from Long Reach. The painting was last on the market in 1945 and has remained in the same family’s collection ever since. The work was estimated to bring between £4 – 6M and hammered at £4.0M/$5.5M (£4.8M/$6.6M – w/p). Taking second place was Sir Anthony van Dyck’s Family portrait of the painter Cornelis de Vos and his wife Suzanna Cock and their two eldest children, Magdalena and Jan-Baptist (now that is a title!). This painting was one of many recovered by the Monuments Men in the 1940s and restituted to the family in 1948. Since then, it has changed hands a few times and appears to have been in the same collection since the 1970s. The work was expected to bring £1-1.5M and hammed at £2M/$2.76M (£2.44M/$3.36M – w/p). In the third position was Willem Kalf’s Still life with a Chinese ginger jar, silver, objects of vertu, a cut melon, bread, a paper packet in a porcelain bowl, and a pink rose, all on a table draped with a Persian carpet, that carried an £800-1.2M estimate and sold for £1.2M/$1.66M (£1.47M/$2M – w/p). Rounding out the top five were Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde’s The Oudezijds Heerenlogement, on the confluence of the Grimburgwal and the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam at £550K/$760K (£681K/$939K – w/p); and then there was a tie for 5th. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s A wooded estuary with a ferry and fishermen selling their catch, just 8.5 inches in diameter, which was purchased by the seller back in 1978 for £68K (est. £300-500K), and Adriaen Isenbrant’s The Crucifixion (est. £200-300K) each made £520K/$717K (£644K/$889K – w/p).

still life of flowers and objects

Willem Kalf

From the results of the top five lots, you would assume that this was an extremely successful sale; well, as we all know, there is more to an auction story than just the top sellers. 

Of the 50 works listed in their online catalog, only 49 were offered (lot 26 went missing), and of those, 21 were unsold (about 43% of the sale). Among their biggest failures were Jan Brueghel the Elder’s A lavish still life of many flowers in a terracotta vase resting on a wooden ledge, flanked by a clump of cyclamen and scattered diamonds and sapphires (est. £2.5-3.5M), Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s Floral still life including tulips and roses, in a glass beaker upon a stone ledge (est. £700-1M), and Balthasar van der Ast’s Flowers in a vase on a stone ledge, with redcurrants and shells (est. £600-800K).

It is important to note that we do not deal in Old Master paintings, so the exact reason why so many works did not sell is hard for us to determine. What I can say is that after reading several condition reports (which seemed rather vague and brief), I would not be surprised if some of the failures were due to condition issues and the fact that most people could not view the works in person. Remember, for most people, when you buy at auction, the item is yours… regardless of what it looks like once you receive it.

Of the 28 sold lots, 2 were below, 13 within, and 13 above their range, leaving them with an accuracy rate of 26.5%. The total take was £14.0M/$19.3M (£17.2M/$23.7M – w/p), but the presale estimate range was £16.9-24.8M; they only made it when we add in the buyer’s premiums – and it was still close!

For me, this is another sign that there is too much product being offered on the market. Sadly, those sellers with less than stellar material are paying the price.