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19th-Century European Art Sale – Sotheby’s, New York

January 28, 2022
horses racing in doncaster - John F. Herring, Sr. titled The 1828 Doncaster Gold Cup - 19th-century

Herring, Sr.

Look, enough is enough. Auction rooms need a reality check for their 19th-century works of art. Over the past ten years, the market has changed. Most collectors are interested in works in good condition, of high quality, and from an artist’s best periods. Offering works that have issues and placing high estimates on them is a recipe for disaster.

The 19th-century market is one of the most undervalued in the art world. Today you have people using computer programs to generate digital artwork that can sell for millions, while many outstanding and important 19th-century works can be acquired in the $20-250K range. It does not make any sense, or maybe I am just an old fuddy-duddy?

a Paris street scene with lots of figures and horse drawn carriages - Edmond-Georges Grandjean’s Le Boulevard des Italiens - 19th-century


When I first saw Sotheby’s European Art Sale online, I was skeptical that it would do well, and after viewing the works in person, I knew it would be a tough hill to climb. Many of the pieces had condition issues, and some of the estimates harked back to a different time when people had no idea what to be concerned about. Now I am not saying that every work of art will be in perfect condition, but you want to try and buy those that have not had or require extensive restoration. Anyway, let’s get on with the show. (w/p = with the buyer’s premium)

In the early evening of January 27, Sotheby’s presented The European Art Sale. A live sale that started just after 5 pm and ended less than 47 minutes later – most of us wish all the evening sales would end that quickly!

portrait of a woman in an elegant interior - Mihály Munkácsy’s Portrait of Princess Soutzo - 19th-century


Taking the top spot was a lovely painting by John F. Herring, Sr. titled The 1828 Doncaster Gold Cup. The picture measured 30 x 48 inches, dated from 1829 (a strong period for the artist), and was expected to sell in the $500-700K range – it hammered for $650K ($806.5K w/p); the painting last sold in 2002 for $779.5K w/p. Coming in second was Edmond-Georges Grandjean’s Le Boulevard des Italiens. This painting was expected to sell in the $300-500K range and hammered down at $250K ($315K w/p). I will add that not only was there a lot of inpainting in the sky (see images), but whoever framed it did not do a good job covering the edges (see the image). The painting last sold back in 1984 for $110,000. In third place was Mihály Munkácsy’s Portrait of Princess Soutzo. This example had pigment separation, carried a $150-250K estimate, and was last at auction in 1990 (it sold for $38,500). It hammered for $140K ($176.4K w/p) this time around.

Three images showing restoration and framing issues - Grandjean


Rounding out the top five were Raffaello Bartoletti’s Bacchante, a large marble sculpture that made $120K ($151.2K w/p – est. $120-180K), and then both Eugen van Blaas’ A Young Beauty and Corot’s Vallons défrichés sold for $110K ($138.6K w/p – est. $100-150K).

A couple of 19th-century works performed relatively well. Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Graziella, a 10.5 x 8.5-inch portrait on panel, made $38K ($47.9K w/p) on an $8-12K estimate, and Carlo Cherubini’s La danza carried a $46-60K estimate and sold for $100K ($126K w/p). Sadly, several of the pricier works did not find buyers; among them were Godward’s Contemplation ($250-350K) and Happy Hours ($150-250K) – both had condition issues.

detail mages showing condition issues with the Godward paintings


Elsley’s Well Done! had an estimate that did not jive with the current market ($300-500K) while Grimshaw’s A Yorkshire Road, November (est. $250-350K) was also a non-starter. Then there was Bouguereau’s Jeune bergère debout (est. $800-$1.2M) which did not have that wow factor for a million-dollar painting – it last sold in 1994 for $134.5K.

Of the 49 works offered, 34 sold (69.4% sell-through rate), which is not too bad; however, the total take was just $2.8M ($3.5M w/p), well below the $4.98-$7.46M estimate range. Of the 34 sold works, 19 were below, 9 within, and 6 above their expected ranges. Adding in the 15 unsold works left them with an accuracy rate of just 18.4%.

Look, as a work of art ages, more condition issues develop … something we all expect and accept – just think about how you looked when you were a teenager and how you look now. You know, wrinkles, puffiness, etc. (your dermatologist or plastic surgeon loves it).  However, when it is time to place a work on the market, the estimate needs to consider its quality, period, and CONDITION — unless it is by someone like da Vinci, then you can throw all of that out the window!