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Michelangelo Fizzles, Others Score at Old Master Sales

The auction season for Old Masters was off to a less-than-stellar start at Christie’s on Jan. 24, when a Michelangelo drawing estimated at about $4 million failed to sell. In total the sale earned $2.4 million with 141, or 78 percent, of 181 lots finding buyers. By value the auction was 37 percent sold.

NEW YORK—The auction season for Old Masters was off to a less-than- stellar start at Christie’s on Jan. 24, when a Michelangelo drawing estimated at about $4 million failed to sell. In total the sale earned $2.4 million with 141, or 78 percent, of 181 lots finding buyers. By value the auction was 37 percent sold.

The Sotheby’s sale of Old Master drawings on Jan. 25 fared better, realizing $4.8 million with 131, or 71 percent, of 185 lots sold. By value the auction was 87 percent sold.

The 16th-century Michelangelo drawing, Study of A Male Torso, was said to be one of few such works still in private hands. The drawing had appeared on the open market once before, in 1976, when it fetched £178,200 (about $320,000), a record at the time for an Old Master drawing.

At the sale, bids climbed as high as $3.2 million before the hammer fell and the lot was bought in. “There was a lot of interest, but ultimately it did not convert to a successful bid,” Christie’s spokesman Rik Pike told ARTnewsletter. “Obviously we were disappointed, but the top end of the market can be unpredictable.”

“The drawing was hard to read,” says private New York dealer Jill Newhouse. “It was a drawing with a price, as opposed to a drawing so great that everyone would stretch for it.” Further, she points out, “there has been a handful of better Michelangelo drawings on the market in the last few years,” so that anyone who was in the market for such a work may have already acquired one.

Several dealers report post-auction interest in the Michelangelo work, indicating that a purchase could be negotiated sometime soon.

Overall the sales produced solid results at both houses. The top lot at Christie’s was A cart-horse and a postilion at the door of a forge, by Jean- Louis-André-Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). Estimated at $150,000/250,000, the work realized $318,400.

Two works by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69) also figured among the top lots, including A Seated Man Looking Forward, which sold for $251,200 (estimate: $150,000/200,000); and A Bearded Man, which brought $78,000 (estimate: $60,000/80,000).

Aside from the Michelangelo drawing’s failure to find a buyer, “we were otherwise very pleased with the results of the sale,” says William O’Reilly, Christie’s specialist and head of New York sales in Old Master and 19th-century drawings. “Over three-quarters of the lots sold above their collective estimate, and the auction showed a healthy demand across all sectors of the market.”

Higher-than-expected prices were achieved for both Christ on the Cross, by Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), estimated at $30,000/50,000; and Flowers in a Terracotta Urn, by Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), estimated at $20,000/ 30,000. Each sold for $78,000.

At Sotheby’s the top lot by far was a watercolor by William Blake (1757-1827), Oberon and Titania on a Lily, which fell for $520,000, within its presale estimate of $400,000/600,000.

Another strong six-figure price was realized for a half-length Portrait of Miguel de Muzquiz, Conde de Gausa, a black-chalk-and-graphite work by Francisco de Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828), that earned $352,000, way more than double the high estimate of $160,000.

The results “demonstrate that even in a selective market there is still great competition for drawings of exceptional quality and interesting provenance,” noted Greg Rubinstein, director of Sotheby’s Old Master drawings department. The overall total was “the best result we’ve had for several years,” he added.

(A full report on the Old Master auctions will appear in the next issue of ARTnewsletter.)

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