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Butkin Collection At Sotheby’s 19th-Century Sale

May 25, 2023

A portrait of a shepherd

Charles Sprague Pearce "The Young Shepherd "

On May 24th, Sotheby's offered up a lower-end group of 19th-century paintings, and while it had mixed results, some of the works did rather well.

landscape with trees and a river

Johan Christian Dahl "Waterfall in Hemsedal"

As we have seen over the past few years, the main salerooms have been trying to present important 19th-century paintings in their Old Master sales. While this is a nice idea, the problem is that they typically feature mid to lower-level examples when they create a stand-alone sale of 19th-century works. In turn, these sales perform poorly, making the market seem weak, which is not the case when it comes to quality works in good condition.

A large portion of this sale contained works from The Muriel S. and Noah L. Butkin Collection, which were being sold to benefit the Cleveland Museum of Art. Obviously, the museum decided to sell 49 works they felt did not add anything to their collection … in other words, the ‘stuff’ (though I am surprised they deaccessioned the Bargue). If you go to the museum’s website, you can see all the works they are keeping which include paintings by Tissot, Gérôme, Alma-Tadema, Bouguereau, Lhermitte, Cazin, Vibert, Bonvin, etc. Anyway, let's get on with our review.

damage on the Dahl painting

Dahl - paint shrinkage

A strong work by Charles Sprague Pearce titled The Young Shepherd came in at the top of the heap. The painting measured 42.5 x 30 inches, had been in the same family's collection for decades, and was expected to sell in the $30-50K range; it finally hammered at $130K ($165.1K w/p). Taking the number two position was a large work (59.75 x 50 inches) with some real condition issues by Johan Christian Dahl titled Waterfall in Hemsedal. While viewing the sale, we noticed that the painting had extensive pigment shrinkage, which was not disclosed in the condition report: The canvas is lined. The paint surface is stable. There are frame abrasions to the edges. There are patterns of craquelure in places. Minor scuffs and scratches in places. Inspection under UV reveals areas of retouching to aformentioned frame abrasions and craquelure, scattered areas of retouching to sky, forest and waterfall. Well, that did not seem to bother at least two bidders who took the $5-7K estimated work up to $55K ($69.9K w/p). In a close third was a small (11 x 8 inches) painting by Charles Bargue from 1878 titled The Artist and his Model. Bargue was an important French academic artist who, along with Jean-Léon Gérôme, created the Cours de dessin – an important classical drawing course. The painting was estimated to sell in the $30-50K range and hammered at $50K ($63.5K w/p).

An artist and model looking in a studio - Butkin Collection

Charles Bargue "The Artist and his Model"

Rounding out the top five were Václav Brožík's The Order of the Cardinal that hammered at $45K ($57.2K w/p) on a $25-25K estimate, and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida watercolor Valenciana a la reja which made $40K ($50.8K w/p) on a $40-50K estimate.

Several works performed rather well. Rosa Bonheur's Head of an Ewe (8 x 7 inches - Butkin Collection) carried a $7-9K estimate and brought $19K ($24.1K w/p) – why? You got me! Another work described as "Italian School, 19th Century" had a $1.2-1.8K estimate and sold for $4.5K ($6.1K w/p), and Johan Frederick Eckersberg's Mountain Lake made $14K ($17.8K w/p) on a $3-5K estimate. Then they had many works that sold well below their estimate ranges; these included Jean-Léon Gérôme's Scarlet Ibis at $38K ($48.3K w/p – est. $60-80K - Butkin Collection) – I am still wondering how they came up with that estimate, Francisco Domingo Marqués's L'ancien modèle de Meissonier at $800 ($1.02K w/p – est. $4-6K), Ernest Meissonier's Portrait of Alfred Lachnitt which made $1.8K ($2.3K w/p – est. $5-7K), and François Diday's Near the Salève which carried a $3-5K estimate and sold for $1K ($1,270 w/p). And finally, there were those works that did not find a buyer; these included paintings by Goupil ($15-20K), Bonvin (est. $20-30K - Butkin Collection), Helleu ($20-30K), Vernon ($30-50K), and Pearce ($40-60K).

When the sale was over, of the 122 works originally offered, 2 were withdrawn, 86 sold, and 32 passed. The total take was $855K (1.086M w/p) on a $1.081-$1.585M presale estimate, so they needed to buyer's premium to beat the low end. Of the 86 sold lots, 50 were below, 21 within, and 15 above their estimate, giving them an accuracy rate of just 17.5%.

Over the past few months, salerooms across the globe have offered good quality 19th-century works of art and achieved spectacular prices. A great example of this was a recent sale at Dorotheum (which Nathan covered) where Eugene von Blaas's The Curious brought $572K (est. $132-176K), Fausto Zonaro's Sunday Promenade in Göksu made $360K on a $110-160K est., and a work Attributed to Jan Matejko was only estimated to bring $8.6-$13K and made $320K. At least another dozen works in that sale crushed their estimates. We will continue to stress the need for the main auction rooms to curate their 19th-century sales properly. Selling 'junk' is only going to generate junky results.