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Sotheby’s Belle Époque Splendor: The Discerning Eye Of A Collector

May 26, 2022
full length portrait of an elegant woman


Well, Sotheby’s presented a group of paintings from one collection titled Belle Époque Splendor: The Discerning Eye Of A Collector. I think you will soon agree that “The Discerning Eye” part of the title was very misleading. From the images alone, we felt that this was going to be a tough one, which was confirmed after viewing the actual works. Many had condition issues, were not strong examples, and one or two were unfinished (see image below). Of course, I had to watch the sale to see what happened, and most of the results were what we expected.

portrait of a woman on a sofa


The most highly valued lot took the top spot – Giovanni Boldini’s Portrait of Countess Zichy. This very large work (86.5 x 47 inches) carried a $1.5-2.5M estimate and hammered for $1.05M ($1.32M w/p). Not what the auction room was expecting, but the owner bought the painting in 1995 after it went unsold with a $500-700K estimate. So, more than likely, he paid less than $500K. In second place they had Paul César Helleu’s Camara. This large pastel (41.5 x 38.5 inches) had a strong estimate of $100-150K and hammered at $120K ($151.2K w/p). The seller acquired the painting back in 1993 for $51,750 – so not too bad. The third spot was nabbed by Louis Abbéma’s Portrait of Renée Delmas de Pont-Jest. It was estimated to bring $30-50K and was the best performer when it sold for $110K ($138.6K w/p – more than doubling its high estimate). The seller bought this one back in 1993 for $41,400 … another profit.

woman at a desk


Coming in fourth was a late period Victor Gabriel Gilbert titled Marche aux fleurs de la Madeleine; L’embarras du choix that had a $50-70K estimate and sold for $70K ($88.2K w/p – it was purchased back in 1995 for $48,875). Then there was a tie for 5th place when Paul César Helleu’s Portrait of Lucette (est. $60-80K – bought for $32K in 1996) and Virgilio Costantini’s The Model’s Repose (est. $80-120K – bought in 1993 for $107K on a $10-15K estimate) each hammered at $50K ($63K w/p). So, of the top works listed, five of the six were in the positive column.

detail of a painting showing hands and flowers

Gervex (detail – unfinished)

After reading that, you might be wondering – what is Howard talking about? Most of those lots did well. You are correct that most of those did well; what you are missing is the rest of the sale, which did not perform very well. Of the 45 lots offered, 26 sold (a 57.7% sell-through rate – not one of the best). The overall estimate range was $3.43-$5.35M, and the total hammer price was $1.87M ($2.35M w/p), so they fell far short. Of the lots offered, 12 went below, 7 within, and 7 above their estimate range, giving them an accuracy rate of just 15.5%.

This sale was another example of the major saleroom’s inability to source really strong 19th-century works, and it also illustrates that when a good 19th-century work is offered, there is competitive bidding.