On January 26th, Sotheby’s presented a sale of works by Bouguereau and artists who were either students or followers. The offerings spanned the last 180 years, and while some of the better pieces did fine, overall, the sale did not hit its mark.
I will sound like a broken record (and you will hear it again when I review a few other 19th-century sales) — when will these salerooms properly curate auctions of 19th-century paintings? Look, offering poor quality works, many with condition issues is not a recipe for success. Anyway, let’s get into the action.
The top lot was William Bouguereau’s L’Italienne au Tambour de Basque which dates from 1872. This 56 x 42-inch work features a seated female figure holding a tambourine. The work beautifully illustrates the artist’s ability to accurately capture the human figure’s hands, feet, and face, something many other artists try to achieve but often fall short of. The work was estimated to sell in the $550-$750K range and hammered for $700K ($882K w/p). The seller originally purchased the work in 1987 for $253K, so that was a nice return.
Taking second place was another William Bouguereau titled La petite écolière (The Little Schoolgirl). This slightly smaller piece (41 x 30 inches) dated from 1879 and carried a $600-$800K estimate. I was not a fan of the image, but someone was willing to pony up $550K ($693K w/p) to take it home. So with the premium, it fell in the middle of its estimate.
Third place was nabbed by William’s second wife, Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau. Her painting The Little Mother measures 49.5 x 31.75 inches, was created in 1891 and displayed her ability to paint the human figure. My question has always been, did her husband lend a hand? I am waiting for someone to research her life and career for a catalogue raisonné. Then we will find out how her technical abilities changed throughout her career, from the time before she met William, the years she was with him, and then after he passed away. The painting was estimated to sell in the $300-500K range and hammered at $320K ($403.2K w/p).
Rounding out the top five were William Bouguereau’s large (67 x 36 inch) painting Prêtresse de Bacchus which dates from 1894. This lot was not one of my favorite works by the artist as the subject seemed a bit silly, and I assume others felt the same since it fell well short of its $400-600K estimate – selling for $300K ($378K w/p). And then there was a very small (16 x 11.5 inch) and very nice work by Alexei A. Harlamoff titled The Young Model. While viewing the sale, this was one of the few works that drew my attention. The lot was expected to sell in the $50-70K range and brought $100K ($126K w/p). It shows you that nice works that are fresh to the market will garner high prices.
Someone reading this review may be able to educate me on why this particular painting sold. Lot 239 was a large Leon Perrault titled A Crown of Wildflowers. The lot was estimated to bring in the $30-50K range and hammered for $28K ($35.9K w/p). While viewing the sale with the family, we all noticed the work’s really poor condition — serious overcleaning (see the detail images below). Each of us had the same opinion; this one would not sell. Guess we were wrong. I would like to know if the buyer examined the work in person, or did they base their decision on the website images? If you are interested in seeing a nice painting by Perrault, check out The Awakening of Love.
By the time the sale ended, of the 50 lots in the catalog, 1 appears to have been withdrawn, and 20 were unsold (8 of which were by contemporary artists). That left them with a sell-through rate of just 61%. The low end of their estimate range was $3.36M, and the sale brought $2.53M ($3.2M w/p), so even with the premium, they were a little short. Of the 29 sold works, 8 were below, 14 within, and 7 above their estimate range. This gave them an accuracy rate of 28.6%.