The shake-up of the Old Masters market continued apace this summer with the help of some A-list celebrity endorsements and the bedding-in of new blood.
Since the world-record $400m paid for Leonardo de Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s New York last November, lauded by many as a piece of auction marketing brilliance, there has been a renewed buzz around Old Masters.
Adding to this, a month before the July series in London, was the vision of pop power duo Beyoncé and Jay Z rapping in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa for a music video.
Riding this popular culture wave, Sotheby’s announced soon after its ‘collaborative exhibition’ with Victoria Beckham. The Spice- Girl-turned-fashion-designer chose highlights from the auction house’s Old Master sale and presented them before the auction in her Dover Street store in Mayfair.
“Popular culture is certainly having an effect,” said Alex Bell, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of Old Master paintings, adding that “the VB effect” had attracted more than 7000 visitors to view the sale, nearly double the usual number.
Whether this increase in footfall translated directly into bids is unclear, but it is a welcome sight for a market that has struggled to recapture the limelight it has lost to the booming modern and contemporary market.
The latest series, which lacked a big-money show-stopper, was down on the last two years. However, the sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams (25/20/12.5-12.9% buyer’s premium) netted a respectable combined total of over £90m including premium, with new buyers from Russia, Asia and Latin America.
Sell-through rates were solid, hovering around 75% at Sotheby’s and Christie’s but patchier at Bonhams, which dispensed with just over half its lots (55%).
Outside the demand for work attributed to major names such as Rembrandt and Rubens, a clamour for the quirky and striking is the biggest trend to surface over the last few series.
“There is a taste emerging now for very direct and captivating images, most usually found in the shape of portraits,” said Andrew Fletcher, a senior director and head of auction sales for Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “People aren’t so worried about prettiness any more – they want that ‘warts and all’ reality.”
Much of this shift has been directed towards a small but growing group of new, younger clientele, who are less influenced by traditional opinions and prejudices.
While it appears that Old Masters have had success in capturing this much-coveted group, the biggest challenge remains finding material of sufficient quality from a dwindling supply to feed that demand.
In today’s fast-paced world, where trends and fashions are constantly in flux, it will also test the power of the marketing machines of the major auction houses to keep them engaged after Beyoncé et al have moved on.
In the £35.25m Sotheby’s evening sale on July 4 in New Bond Street, the “VB effect” may well have had some impact on the series’ top lot: a rather stern portrait of a Venetian nobleman by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
The 23 x 19in (59 x 48cm) oil on oak panel had not been seen on the market since it was acquired by the Dutch collector Hans Wetzlar in the 1950s and was one of 16 works exhibited at Beckham’s Mayfair boutique. Backed by an ‘irrevocable bid’ (one of 13 in the sale), it drew a two-way phone battle and sold above the £3m-4m guide at £4.6m.
Several other portraits handpicked by Beckham and praised for their “directness” also sold strongly. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (1472- 1553)Portrait of a Man with a Spotted Fur Collar fetched a top-estimate £2m from a phone bidder, while a portrait of a lady catalogued as ‘circle of Leonardo da Vinci’ was pushed to £450,000 by four bidders, comfortably over the £200,000- 300,000 guide.
However, the most striking work from this group was a 15th century portrait of Mary of Burgundy attributed to the Netherlandish or south German school that sold over top estimate at £1.7m. The 18½ x 14in (47 x 35cm) oil on oak panel is one of seven portraits of the duchess created after her premature death in a hunting accident, and the only one left in private hands.
Among a number of quality Flemish pictures on offer was an oil on copper still-life with flowers in a glass vase surrounded by insects and a snail by Clara Peeters (fl.1607-21), the only female painter represented in the auction.
From the Van Dedem collection of Dutch and Flemish art, it was bought by David Koetser for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for £520,000 against a £250,000- 350,000 guide.
A phone buyer bidding through George Gordon, Sotheby’s cochairman of worldwide Old Master paintings and drawings, splashed out £6.41m on seven Flemish paintings. This included £1.7m on a mythological painting of the goddess Diana (another Van Dedem entry), a collaborative effort between Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrik van Balen I, and £2.2m for a rare group of four northern European panels, c.1420, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and not seen on the market since 1965.
As with Sotheby’s, Italian noblemen were in demand at Christie’s the following evening in King Street.
Ludovico Carracci’s (1555-1619) charismatic swagger portrait of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni in full body armour was pursued by three bidders against a £3.5m-5m estimate before it sold on the phone at £4.3m, the second-highest price for the artist at auction. The 3ft 4in x 2ft 10in (1.02m x 86cm) oil on canvas represented a healthy return for the vendor, who had purchased it at Sotheby’s New York in 2005 for a premiuminclusive $1.81m (£961,700).
Among the English entries was an arresting portrait of a gentleman by William Dobson (1611-46). Deemed an ‘outstanding example’ of the work that established Dobson’s reputation in England following the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck in 1641, it was bid to £360,000 against a £100,000- 150,000 guide.
It had sold to the vendor in its last appearance at auction in 1972 for 172 guineas, where it was identified as the politician and author, Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland.
The vendor of an intimate portrait of the Holy Family by Gerard David (c.1460-1523) also achieved a significant return.
It had been in a family collection for more than a century before it surfaced at Christie’s New York in 2003, where it sold for a premiuminclusive $999,500 (£613,200). Recently restored, it prompted prolonged competition between three phone bidders and was eventually knocked down at £4.1m.
Despite the successes, there were some high-profile casualties, such as the recently reattributed portrait by Rubens of his daughter Clara Serena, who died at the age of 12. Having been considered as by a follower of Rubens, this tender and informal work had been deaccessioned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 and acquired by the vendor at $20,000.
Despite an extensive clean and its much-publicised reattribution, it failed to find a buyer at £3m-5m.