ARTnewsletter Archive

Solid Prices at Scaled-Down Old Master Auctions

In the summer auctions held July 7–10, prices for Old Masters and historic British paintings and watercolors closed in on those of contemporary art, with Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s taking in a combined £70 million ($112 million) in 10 sessions (excluding sales of works of art).

LONDON—In the summer auctions held July 7–10, prices for Old Masters and historic British paintings and watercolors closed in on those of contemporary art, with Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s taking in a combined £70million ($112million) in 10 sessions (excluding sales of works of art). Although the total was down from the £100million ($197million) of last year’s sales (ANL, 7/22/08), last summer’s £162million ($319million) gap between Old Master and contemporary totals was reduced to nothing.

It could be argued that a comparison of these Old Master results with those for contemporary art is skewed by the huge number of ­lower-estimated lots (approximately 600, or nearly half the 1,315 lots) offered in minor sales—the recent contemporary sales offered only 657 lots in total—but low-value lots in this Old Master series accounted for only about £2million ($3.2million), or less than 3 percent, of the overall total. Comparisons with previous Old Master sales are also skewed by Christie’s expansion of its Old Master paintings department to include drawings and particularly 19th-century European art. This change, however, had only a minor effect on the total, as 19th-century European art contributed less than £3million ($4.8million), or little more than 4 percent, to Christie’s overall sales. Another change which affects a comparison of the results at the two larger houses is Sotheby’s decision to hold its usually separate sales of British paintings and watercolors in the same week as the Old Master sales and include them in its total. But as Christie’s already includes these categories in its Old Master sales, the change actually provides a more even basis of comparison.

The result, then, was that Sotheby’s came out in the lead, realizing £41.8million ($67million) from 439 lots offered in five sales. Christie’s brought in £25.6million ($41million) from 760 lots in four sales, with Bonhams picking up £2.86million ($4.6million) for its sale of 93 lots of Old Master and British paintings. Sotheby’s had also realized £8.4million ($13.4million) in its sales of ­19th-century European art last month, which yielded a total of £50.2million ($80.4million) in comparison with Christie’s sales of the same genres.

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