Old Masters provided some solace for the London auction rooms last week, posting the solid totals and some eye-catching prices to suggest this most established of markets will ride the downturn better than its modern counterparts.
It was not plain sailing. Supply was notably patchy and the tighter credit controls at Christie's did little to ease any apprehension. But, in the first major test for Old Masters since the credit crunch took full hold, Sotheby's were able to post a total comfortably within the pre-sale estimate and Christie's an impressive selling rate of 80 per cent.
London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni speculated that the traditional buying base for Old Master pictures - a collector rather than an investment driven market - is key. "[We] don't rely on the new economic wealth that has gone into the contemporary market," he told ATG. "Old Masters seem to be safer."
Mr Baroni purchased the most strongly contested lot at Christie's on December 2. This was a rediscovered Giambattista Tiepolo portrait of a lady as the goddess Flora which, having been hidden in an attic of a family château, was in exceptional condition.
Two bidders on the telephone carried it above its £700,000-900,000 estimate, before Mr Baroni and another interested party in the room took it up to a final £2.5m.
Finding buyers for 35 out of 44 lots - including a £3.4m Canaletto of the Grand Canal - Christie's hammer total was £12.6m against a presale estimate of £15.6m-23.8m.
Over at Sotheby's, Alex Bell said he had not felt the need to follow other department heads and ask that vendors lower reserves set back in the summer. Although quality levels was as variable as ever, Sotheby's found buyers for 32 of the 53 lots offered on the evening of December 3, posting a hammer total of £11.4m against a £9.5m-13.5m global estimate.
The most striking price of the auction series was at Sotheby's for a Renaissance oil-on-marble portrait of the Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti by Girolamo da Carpi. Despite its fragmentary condition, it sold on the telephone to an American collector, underbid by London dealer Daniel Katz at £2.7m, ten times its pre-sale estimate.
Sotheby's top lot was Frans van Mieris the Elder's panel of a girl feeding a parrot - the prime 1663 version of perhaps the artist's most famous composition. Against an estimate of £500,000-700,000, it sold to London dealer Johnny Van Haeften, bidding on behalf of an American client, at £3.2m.
A full report on these and other Old Master sales will appear in next week's ATG printed newspaper. To subscribe click here.
By Alex Capon