On October 16th, we decided to take a trip to Manhattan to view Sotheby’s 19th-Century Works of Art sale. Looking at the online photos, it appeared the works would be disappointing, but I needed to be sure. Well, it did not take long to confirm our suspicions. Most of the paintings were, at best, average examples, and many had condition issues. What was also a little odd is that of 172 works offered, 108 came from just three different collections. One of those collectors was Paul Yeou Chichong – all of his lots were guaranteed. At first, it seemed strange that Sotheby’s would guarantee all that ‘stuff,’ but then I remembered several of the collector’s works appeared at their Modern Evening auction last May. Among the artists were Monet, Magritte, Miro, Picasso, etc., and the total take for those lots was over $30M. So, guaranteeing the ‘stuff’ probably meant little to the auction room. It also became obvious that this sale would have been better titled – The “Getting Rid Of The Stuff” Sale.
I did a little further research into one of the collections offered and discovered that most were acquired through auctions. It is always troubling that people do not question the quality and condition of the art they might buy, as they are two of the most important things to consider. It was also interesting to note that by the time the sale began, 34 lots were withdrawn – all from the Seymour Stein collection (he, too, had at least one work in Sotheby’s May 2022 evening sale). Anyway, let’s get on to the action – or lack thereof (w/p – with the Buyer’s Premium; and a big thank you to Nathan for watching the sale).
Franz von Stuck’s Danae and the Golden Shower took the top spot in the sale. The painting was part of the Seymour Stein collection and carried a $10-$15K estimate. When the bidding ended, it hammered at $130K ($163.8K w/p) – almost nine times its expected range. I was very surprised by this since the condition was rough. According to the condition report, the paint is “stable but soiled”, with “[m]inor scratches and scuffs in places”. There was also some extensive retouching across the canvas, especially the central figure’s “right calf, a C-shaped line approximately 2 inches square in length to her right thigh, to her left thigh, an L-shaped line to her left bicep, beneath her right elbow, to her lower back, and in places across her stomach, chest, neck, face, and hair.” Maybe, one day I will understand how certain lots make high prices even though they have many condition issues.
In second place was Gustav A. Mossa’s La Légende de Judith (this was part of the Chichong collection). The painting was estimated to bring $30-50K and hammered at $95K ($119.7K w/p). The condition report for this one was much better, with the paint surface described as in “good condition but slightly soiled.” There is also craquelure, frame abrasion, and a bit of retouching, but not as extensive as the Mossa. And in third place was Edouard Joseph Dantan’s My Father’s Studio, estimated at $30-50K and sold for $75K ($94.5K w/p). This one had a little restoration, but nothing too serious. Sotheby’s reported that there were only “minor areas of craquelure in places”, as well as some retouching to cover up some frame abrasions.
There were a few good surprises. The last lot of the sale was cataloged as Marble Figure of Shakespeare Leaning on a Pedestal, probably English, after Peter Scheemakers, late 19th century, and had a $2-3K estimate. The work hammered at $28K ($35.3K w/p) – more than nine times the estimate. Another piece cataloged as French School, 19th Century Ressemblance Garantie was expected at $6-8K and sold for $24K ($30.2K w/p) – three times its estimate; and Václav Brožík’s Two Artists was estimated to bring $12-18K and sold for $42K ($52.9K w/p) – almost four times its high estimate. Of course, there are those surprises one would never expect. Lot 214 was one of several works by Joseph Bail from the Chichong collection. This small work (20 x 11 1/2 inches), titled Taking a Break (detail image shown here), was estimated to sell between $8K and $12K (it last sold in 2012 for $25K) . The biggest issue in my mind was its condition (a wreck), and their condition report confirmed that. There were “patterns of craquelure throughout, especially to the upper half of the composition” and extensive inpainting, many areas of which were “noticeable to the naked eye.” After reading the full report, one would assume that any intelligent person would stay away, but the painting sold for $5K ($6.3K w/p). I know that was far less than expected, but still. And as for the unsold lots, there were so many, including a Eugen von Blaas (est. $100-150K), Emile Vernet-Lecomte (est. $55-65K), Pierre Narcisse Guérin (est. $40-60K), and Charles-Auguste van den Berghe (est. $40-60K).
When the sale ended, of the 138 works offered, 56 were bought in (giving Sotheby’s a sell-through rate of 59.4%). They were expecting $1.79-$2.65M but only achieved a total of $1.067M – way short. Of the works sold, 50 were below, 19 within, and 13 above their presale estimate range – a 13.7% accuracy rate.
This sale was another excellent example of why people must be careful when purchasing artwork. It is very important to work with individuals in the art world who not only know about the artists they offer for sale (in terms of quality, period, subject matter, etc.) but are also very concerned with the condition of those works. Many firms/people in the art world will sell anything they can get; all they are after is money. Then there are those professionals who pick and choose only works they know are in excellent condition and among the finest examples from a particular artist.