A major name, high quality, freshness to the market and a reasonable estimate are meant to be the all-important keys to success for a picture at auction. At least they used to before the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Since then auctioneers of 19th century art – and in particular 19th century Orientalist art – have seen droves of what three months ago might have seemed commercial enough paintings meet with hitherto unknown levels of indifference from an embattled trade.
The fairly disastrous selling rate of four out of 19 lots at Christie’s October 31 sale of Important Orientalist Paintings from a Private European Collection in New York might have been predictable enough in the current political climate, but specialist-in-charge Dr. Timothy Hunter was clearly taken aback by a selling rate of just 36 per cent (41 out of 113 lots) at Christie’s (17.5/10% buyer’s premium) November 9 sale of 19th
century European Art in London.
“What was most disappointing was to see good fresh paintings going unsold. Clients were saying they’d seen what happened at the New York 19th century sales and wanted to wait,” said Dr. Hunter, who cited the failure of Gustave Moreau’s (1826-1898) Saint Cécile (estimate £500,000-700,000) shown right, and Arnold Böcklin’s (1827-1901) Ruined Castle with two circling Eagles (£200,000-300,000) as signs of exceptional times.
“Both were museum quality pictures that were fresh to the market, in good condition and reasonably estimated,” said a baffled Hunter, who stressed the importance Christie’s attached to trade bidding. “All we can do is sit tight and continue to consign the best things that we can.”
Unfortunately for auctioneers of 19th century art, the trade, for the moment at least, is also sitting tight – on its hands.