Observations from the Old Master auctions
With travel being severely restricted for most of 2020, the difficulties of sourcing works for sale became evident in Old Master auctions this year so far. The shareholders may have been pleased to see such a dramatic decline in expensive client dinners and international business-class flights but the offerings were clearly affected by the pandemic. The miracle is that so many bidders participated at all and it adds more evidence that buyers decreasingly need to see the art in the flesh before bidding at auction.
Sotheby’s New York in January 2021 did offer a number of high-priced works, notably a small Rembrandt biblical painting, estimated at 20-30m USD, which they guaranteed but were unable to sell at the auction; more memorably, the Botticelli portrait which sold for 92.2m USD, making it the second most expensive Old Master painting ever sold at auction (fig. 1). The seller, Sheldon Solow acquired it for just 810,000 GBP in 1989. However, that consignment had been signed months before the pandemic.
Christie’s April sale was not a vintage year and its top lot turned out to be a painting by Sebastiano del Piombo, consigned by the European trade; even that sold below the low end of the estimate. The 55% sell through rate is an indicator of the quality of the material. The same story applied to the most recent Sotheby’s July sale in London which had a 56% sell through rate and an unusually low total of just over 14m GBP. Some of the most highly anticipated lots, including still-life paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, and Balthasar van der Ast (combined estimate of 3.8-5.3m GBP) failed to find buyers. Does this indicate a shift in taste away from the once highly desirable category of Dutch and Flemish floral painting? Christie’s July sale, bucking this trend, was able to put together a much more impressive group and, despite limited draconian travel restrictions coming into England saw spirited bidding on many lots with the sale totalling over 37m GBP, its best total for the category in London since 2016.
A number of important Old Master paintings also caught our attention in auction houses across continental Europe. A Nocturne by Georges de la Tour that sold for 4.34m EUR in December 2020 (fig. 2), as reported in our end-of-year market summary, was revealed by the Cologne auction house Lempertz to have been bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Briscadieu Bordeaux sold a still-life by Alexandre-François Desportes for 2.03m EUR in September 2020 setting a record for the artist (fig. 3).
In June 2021, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s recently discovered Philosopher Reading realized 6.6m EUR at the French auction house Enchères-Champagne making over three times its 1.7m EUR high estimate (fig. 4). A painting of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Anthony van Dyck sold to a private collector for 2.1m CHF at Koller Zurich in March 2021 (fig. 5). This painting was last sold at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2012, where it was catalogued as “Circle of Sir Anthony van Dyck”, for 22,500 EUR. Additionally, a painting described as “attributed to José de Ribera” estimated at a meager 1,500 EUR was withdrawn just before its planned sale in April 2021 at Ansorena auction house in Madrid, after experts at the Prado Museum said there “was sufficient stylistic and documentary evidence” to suggest that the work might be by Caravaggio (fig. 6). Many specialists have supported this connection to Caravaggio and the work is said to have been sold to a private Spanish collection shortly thereafter.
Notable museum acquisitions
The early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic saw museums almost entirely halt their typical acquisitions. As the pandemic slowly waned, museums resumed their market activity—a selection of highlights follow:
- The Uffizi in Florence announced the purchase of Bartolomeo Passerotti’s Homer’s Riddle (fig. 7), which was described by Raffaello Borghini in his 1584 Il Riposo but considered lost until it was identified by scholars in the collection of the family of Carlo Torrigiani’s descendants.
- The Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired Artemisia Gentileschi’s Lucretia from a private dealer; the work last appeared at Artcurial Paris in 2019 where it sold for 4.8m EUR over an estimate of 600-800,000 EUR.
- A pastel by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was also purchased by the Getty from Christie’s Paris Women in Art sale for a record price of 644,000 EUR (fig. 8).
- Museo de Belles Arts de Bilbao procured Sofonisba Anguissola’s Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine for 110,000 EUR from a private dealer.
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased a Roman School (ca. 1275-1300) painting depicting Eight Scenes from the Life of Christ from Christie’s for 1.47m USD. This incredibly rare and well-preserved work was last publicly presented at the Musée Jacquemart-André’s exhibition The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting.
- A still-life by the French painter Louyse Moillon was privately acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art (fig. 9); the painting will be included in forthcoming exhibition of their recent acquisitions.
- The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. reunited two fragments by Dosso Dossi acquiring the right half a canvas in their collection from Christie’s for 400,000 USD (fig. 10).
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced the acquisition of a painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen. The work, titled Roman Charity, was known to specialists due to seventeenth-century documentation but had been out of sight for over three hundred years before recently resurfacing in an Italian collection.
The online marketplace
Travel restrictions and indoor safety protocols have made it difficult for collectors to make visits to galleries, art fairs and auctions in person during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, there was a 20% decline in the total value of art and antiques sold in 2020 compared to that of 2019. But the circumstances have also necessitated innovations and a sense of being adventurous: the online art market more than doubled in value from 6 billion USD in 2019 to 12.4 billion USD in 2020. One might suspect that the need for physical assessment of condition makes buying and selling old masters sight unseen more difficult, yet in 2020, 20% of European Old Masters lots sold were in online-only sales, accounting for 11% of the value of sales.
During the pandemic most scheduled fairs were either entirely cancelled (e.g. FIAC Paris 2020) or transitioned to a virtual format (e.g. Frieze Masters 2020, Masterpiece 2020 and 2021). Under the umbrella term of ‘online viewing rooms’, we saw these online presentations manifest themselves in many forms: everything from AR technology, to-scale rendition of artworks in a room, to a mere webpage with a list of works available for sale. There were also creative alternatives: La Biennale Paris 2020 presented the fair as an online-only auction on Christie’s website; BRAFA 2021 invited all the participating galleries to present the works as an exhibition in their own gallery space, to be visited by their clients on an appointment-only basis and marketed through BRAFA’s own channels.
ArtTactic’s 2020 survey revealed that 45% of high-net-worth collectors made a purchase through an art fair’s online viewing room – a success that has been captured by new online marketplaces, such as David Zwirner-backed Platform, that have been developed in the last year. The question we are asking ourselves is how much of the online activity will remain when life fully resumes? Is there a threshold or comfort-zone for the prices of works traded online? We did notice that in Christie’s July 2021 Exceptional Sale, the Head of a Bear by Leonardo da Vinci was bought in-person (fig. 11). Of course, this accounts for a small fraction of the 400+ million dollars transacted in Old Masters over the course of the pandemic and perhaps online efforts played a role in the buyer’s decision to attend the auction in the first place. Later this year we will be participating in the digital presentation of TEFAF Maastricht 2021 – our first virtual fair and we would love to hear from you about your experience!❖