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New York Old Master Sales Reflect a ‘Flight to Quality’

Sales of Old Master and Euro­pean paintings and drawings in New York late last month yielded solid, if lower, results, as buyers responded enthusiastically to fresh-to-the-market works among the pared-down offerings.

NEW YORK—Sales of Old Master and Euro­pean paintings and drawings in New York late last month yielded solid, if lower, results, as buyers responded enthusiastically to fresh-to-the-market works among the pared-down offerings. Sotheby’s and Christie’s posted a combined total of $87.4 million, compared with the $98.4 million achieved last January, the bulk of which was realized by Sotheby’s because Christie’s held only one Old Master sale last year (ANL, 2/5/08).

The highlight of the week was The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored, a rare oil on canvas by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) consigned to Sotheby’s by New York dealer and collector Richard Feigen, who had acquired the painting at Christie’s in London in July 1982. First exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1816, the painting was recently included in a major Turner retrospective that opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in late 2007 and traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, last year.

Before the sale, a potential buyer had placed an irrevocable bid on the Turner work—as was denoted by a symbol in the catalogue—guaranteeing that the painting would sell regardless of what happened at the auction. Estimated at $12 million/16 million, the work sold for $12.9 million with premium.

Feigen told ARTnewsletter he was reluctant to part with the work, given the current economic climate, but had done so on the advice of an estate lawyer. “Within the context of today’s market I was satisfied with the price, which fell more or less within the estimate,” he said. “In general terms the buyer was wise and I was stupid. The painting will become much more valuable. There are only 20 or so Turners in private hands.”

George Wachter, Sotheby’s head of Old Master paintings worldwide, said that overall the sales demonstrated “a flight to quality and a desire for great works of art. Collectors and dealers are more focused and selective than I have ever seen—where they saw great opportunities for paintings of fantastic quality that were fresh to the market . . . they were prepared to spend a great deal of money.” Wachter noted that eleven works were sold for more than $1 million each, calling it “quite an accomplishment in the current climate.”

Feigen concurred, noting a pickup in the market for Old Masters in recent months that he interprets as the result of “a flight from other investments; it seems like the money is coming in as a refuge. Old Master paintings of museum quality can be denominated in any currency. Museums all over the world want the same things. Collectors are looking for a way to defy inflation.”

A record $10.2 million was paid for Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s painting Bagpipe Player in Profile (estimate: $4 million/6 million), which had been restituted to the heirs of Herbert von Klemperer last summer by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany. Von Klemperer, a prominent German industrialist, had been forced to surrender the painting for public sale in Berlin in 1938, according to Sotheby’s catalogue.

Feigen was bidding on the Ter Brugghen on behalf of the National Gallery, but at about $8.8 million, he said, he lost out to London Old Master dealer Johnny Van Haeften, bidding for a consortium of dealers.

Museum Gets Second Chance at Masterpiece

After failing to secure the work at the Sotheby’s sale, the National Gallery approached Van Haeften soon after the auction and wound up acquiring the picture from him. Asked about the final price, presumably higher than the original $10 million maximum set by the museum, Van Haeften told ARTnewsletter, “suffice it to say, it was a modest but reasonable profit.” According to a statement from the National Gallery, the acquisition was made possible “with substantial support of gallery donors Greg and Candy Fazakerley.”

Van Haeften said he was buying the picture, along with dealers Otto Naumann and Konrad Bernheimer, “for stock, with no particular buyer in mind,” but had thought of the National Gallery as “someone we could offer it to. We didn’t know they were the underbidder at the time.”

“It was an important picture,” said Feigen. “Those are the things you have to measure the Old Master market by.” He added that the painting “ended up in the place it ought to be.”

In total, Sotheby’s realized $67.9 million for three sales, down from the $93.4 million overall total for three sales last year. Meanwhile Christie’s overall sale volume rose considerably, to $19.5 million for four separate sales, including one of a private collection of Old Masters, from $4.1 million a year ago, when the house held a single auction of Old Master and 19th-century drawings.

Last month Christie’s also announced a new sales initiative for European art, under which the house will merge its auctions of Old Master and British pictures with those of 19th-century European art, Old Master drawings, and British drawings and watercolors. In a statement, Christie’s officials said that the new category, Old Masters and 19th-century art, which will begin to hold sales in June, will create a “consolidated New York sales team that is better aligned with its modern audience of international collectors.”

On Jan. 27 Christie’s opened the Old Master series with the first of two auctions of work from the collection of renowned art historian Julius Held (1905–2003). Out of 68 lots in the part-one sale, 58, or 85 percent, were sold, and the auction was 91 percent sold by value, taking in a total of $2.5 million. With a second sale of less important works held on Jan. 31, the Held Collection realized a total of $3.1 million. The top price was $542,500, paid for an oil-on-panel still life, circa 1652, by Joachim Beucklaer (circa 1534–circa 1574), well above the estimate of $200,000/300,000.

Christie’s main sale of Old Master paintings and sculpture, held on Jan. 28, yielded $14.2 million, the bulk of its total for the week. Of 210 works offered, 137, or 65 percent, were sold. By value, the sale had a lower sell-through rate of 58 percent.

London-based Old Master dealer Jean-Luc Baroni acquired the top lot, Head of Saint John the Evangelist, an oil on paper by Federico Barocci (circa 1535–1612), which sold for $1.8 million, far higher than the $400,000/600,000 estimate. That was followed by a watercolor by Turner, The Brunig Pass from Meringen, Swit­zerland, 1847–48, which sold for $1.08 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2.5 million).

Following the sale, Nicholas Hall, Christie’s international director of Old Masters and ­19th-century art, said the results “illustrate that no matter the economic environment there will always be competitive bidding for the very best.”

At Christie’s Old Master and 19th-century drawings sale on Jan. 29, a drawing by ­Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89), a presumed portrait of Laura Tarsi in Turkish dress, soared past its $80,000/120,000 estimate to bring in $638,500. Of 90 lots offered, 64, or 71 percent, were sold. By value, the auction was 82 percent sold.

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