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Sotheby’s New York Old Masters Two-Parter

June 2, 2022
A winter village scene by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, sold at Sotheby's

The Return from the Inn by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

On Wednesday and Thursday, May 25th and 26th, Sotheby’s New York location held its two-day Old Masters sale. Wednesday’s auction was the main slate, a live event with fifty-four available lots. This session featured all the high-value pieces, including many works from a number of prominent private collections. The next day’s sale was an entirely online event, made up of the lower-valued works of varying sizes, styles, and estimate ranges. While a small handful of lots did rather well, overall the two sales ended up being rather disappointing. Now, I don’t blame buyers for not diving right into this sale. The preceding week saw billions of dollars of art dumped onto the market at all the major auction houses. So it could have been a genuine lack of interest, or it could have just been fatigue that led buyers away from Sotheby’s.

A still life from the Dutch Golden Age by Willem Claesz. Heda featuring pewter plates, an overturned silver beaker resting on a pewter plate and a ham upon another pewter plate, all upon a partially draped table, sold at Sotheby's

Still-life by Willem Claesz. Heda

Specialists at Sotheby’s did predict the top lot with some accuracy: The Return from the Inn by the Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The snowy village scene features a wife, or perhaps a mother, pulling someone away from the bar fight happening in the background. The work was from the collection of the Tahitian philanthropist Paul Yeou Chichong, and Sotheby’s specialists valued the work at $2M to $3M. The hammer came down at $1.5M (or $1.87M w/p), which despite falling short of the estimate was a great leap in value from its last appearance at auction. The last time the Brueghel cross the block was at Sotheby’s in London in 1988 Old Masters sale, where it sold for £380K, or about $699.2K. Another one of the sale’s highlights was the second place lot. A still-life by the Dutch master Willem Claesz. Heda (also suspected of having created the still life discovered in that Australian museum storeroom) was predicted to go for anywhere between $500K and $700K. I was glad to see it sold for slightly above estimate at $750K (or $945K w/p) since it’s such a beautiful work, featuring the pewter and silver dishes, cracked nuts, and unfinished food typical of Heda’s vanitas works. Chichong was the seller of this work as well, having acquired it at a Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in 2010 for £300K, which was equivalent to $432.6K. So he made quite a nice profit on Wednesday. In third was a run-of-the-mill Madonna and child work by Simon Vouet, the court painter to the French king Louis XIII. It did rather well, hitting its low estimate at $400K (or $504K w/p).

A madonna and child by Simon Vouet, the court painter to king Louis XIII, sold at Sotheby's

Madonna and Child by Simon Vouet

Both sales brought in far less than predicted despite some of these lovely works. This was because over a third of the lots, or about nineteen of the fifty-four, went unsold during the live sale. More impactful, however, was the fact that many of the lots during the online sale had very low reserves or no reserves at all. They, therefore, sold for dramatically below their estimates. A Holy Family portrait by Giorgio Vasari, for example, sold for $110K when it was expected to bring in at least $300K. Later on in the online sale, a nineteenth-century Dutch interior scene that was expected to go for anywhere between $1.5K and $3K sold for a mere $800. Yes, it wasn’t in the best condition, with innumerable dots and patches of paint having flaked away from the panel. But regardless, it was incredible to see house specialists so off the mark. Fifty of the one hundred thirteen lots available in the online sale, or around 44%, sold below their estimates. An additional twenty-eight, or one-quarter of the total lots, went unsold. Across both sales, Sotheby’s specialists had an abysmal accuracy rate when it came to predicting the hammer prices. Out of the one hundred sixty-seven lots from both sales, only twenty-seven lots sold within their estimates. That’s only 16.7%. Sotheby’s predicted to bring in a minimum of $7M, so it was truly disappointing to see everything go for just $5.1M.