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  • New York Old Master Winter sales fail to boost market with confidence

    Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)

    La Gimblette (The Ring Biscuit)

    Oil on canvas,
    28 ½ x 35 3⁄16 in. (72.4 x 91 cm.)

    Photo credit: Christie's

    Tepid results were delivered by both Christie's and Sotheby's in last week's flagship auctions and the sales's outcome did very little to lower concerns about an increasingly challenging market for classical painting.

    Christie’s took the stage first, with their Old Masters Part One sale, staged on Wednesday (31 January), which managed to collect $10.9m ($13.8m with fees) against pre-sale expectations of $18m to $27.2m. The equivalent, more robust sale held in 2023 had made $44.2 million with fees, about triple the premium-inclusive total realised in this year’s auction.

    Six of the 78 works were withdrawn before the action began at Christie's whereas of the 72 lots that were in the end offered that night, 30 were bought in, making the sell-through rate a rather unexciting 58%.


    From the very beginning the sale looked a bit 'soft'. Two early lots , both oil-on-panel views of sea-faring vessels by Adriaen Cornelisz van Salm, sold to the same telephone buyer for $130,000 ($163,800 with fees) and $110,000 ($138,600 with fees), having started from against identical estimates set between $120,000 and $180,000 each.

    Some bigger names that took over at a later stage, did not fare much better. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s imposing bearded, armor-clad and sword-bearing Portrait of Henry IV the Devout went to another telephone bidder for $280,000 ($352,800 with fees), just above its $250,000 low expectation. And not even Sir Peter Paul Rubens managed to spice the night up. His richly detailed Head study of an old woman with a veil, from the mid-1620s, sold to an anonymous online bidder for a within-estimate total of $450,000 ($567,000 with fees).

    Online bidding played a major role in the sale, and definitely sprinkled some excitement onto an otherwise flat auction, by successfully bagging Guido Reni’s The Penitent Magdalene, which hammered at its $80,000 low estimate ($100,800 with fees), and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Gimblette (The Ring Biscuit), featuring a semi-nude young woman playing footsie with her poodle in bed. The latter realised a within-estimate sum of $600,000 ($756,000 with fees).


    A few dealers who attended the event after the sale stated that too many lots were carrying unrealistic estimates, which in their view inevitably led to a high number of buy-ins, and that expectations should be adjusted to the current market behaviour.

    The sole works in the sale that performed well were Artemisia Gentileschi’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, that sold to an online bidder for $780,000 ($982,800 with fees), nearly double the low estimate, and a cassone front depicting The Story of Coriolanus by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi (called Lo Scheggia), went for $1.25m ($1.6m with fees, the only lot that was hammered above the $1 threshold.

    Pace and overall quality picked up a little bit at Sotheby’s Master Paintings and Sculpture Part One on Thursday (1 February), even though in this case too the results were behind those from last year.

    The sale realised about $16.8m ($21m with fees) against pre-sale expectations set between $22m and $33.7m, with 19 of the 49 lots that went unsold and an overall depressing sell-through rate of 61%. In January 2023 the equivalent sale had amassed $23.6m ($28.8m with fees).

    The morning session began with optimism, thanks to two lots that sold on their respective high estimate: first Nardo di Cione’s 14th century two-panels representing the Madonna and the Archangel Gabriel, that sold to a telephone bidder for $800,000 ($1m with fees) and then Carlo Crivelli’s 15th-century Apostle Holding a Book, also in tempera and gold ground on panel, which realised $1.2 million ($1.5m with fees).

    Both works were guaranteed by Sotheby’s and backed by irrevocable bids, also known as third-party guarantees.


    However, such a promising start was soon thwarted by other, less vigorous results, which also suggested reserve drops, probably in the wake of Christie's unimpressive performance the day before.

    This must have been the case of the Triumph of Lucius Aemilius Paullus after the Battle of Pydna, also by Lo Scheggia, having sold for $650,000 ($825,500 with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $1m to $1.5m. The picture was requisitioned by Reichmarschall Herman Göring in 1941, from the stock of Amsterdam art dealer Jacques Goudstikker and restituted to the heirs in 2006.

    Elsewhere, a flamboyant self-portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1637-39) made its $2 million low target ($2.4m with fees) and was backed by an irrevocable bid. Much worse happened to Peter Paul Rubens’s Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man(1610-11), that did not go beyond a chandelier bid of $2.4 million, against an estimate of $3m to $5m.

    Whereas only two lots later Robilant + Voena Gallery seemed to pocket a bargain by purchasing Sir Joshua Reynolds’s exquisite Portrait of Nancy (née Parsons) Horton - acquired by the Met back in 1945 and offered in the sale in order to benefit its acquisition fund - for $450,000 ($571,500), against an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.

    Gustav Bauernfeind, The Western Wall, Sotheby's NY, January 2024

    The Dutch were in demand and once more confirmed their market popularity, especially when marine compositions are involved. Salomon van Ruysdael’s Ships on the Boven-Merwede with Gorinchem in the Distance, another work coming from the exceptional collection of J.E. Safra, signed and dated 1659, achieved $1.6m ($2m with fees).

    This was quickly followed by Adam Willaerts’s Dutch ships off a Rocky Coast with a Fishmarket on the Beach (1620), that went to London dealer Johnny van Haeften for a within-estimate amount of $260,000 ($330,200).

    Only two works in the auction climbed above $1m: Luis Meléndez’s elaborate Still Life of Artichokes and Tomatoes in a Landscape found a buyer at $1.65m ($2.1m with fees), and the final lot of the session, Gustav Bauernfeind’s late 19th-century depiction of The Western Wall in Jerusalem, took top lot honours by hammering for $2.8m ($3.4m with fees), just below its high estimate of $3m.

    Author: The Editor |Date: February 9, 2024