LONDON—In a low-key series of Old Master sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams Dec. 7–10, including drawings and 19th-century art at Christie’s, some 1,000 lots were offered, yielding a total of £63million ($98.9million), with an average sell-through rate of 73 percent by lot. The most action took place at Christie’s and Sotheby’s part-one evening sales, in which the two houses finished neck and neck with sales of £25.3million ($39.3million) and £23.6million ($37million) respectively. Christie’s evening sale estimate was £32million/46million, while Sotheby’s was £20million/30million.
Christie’s had the larger sale, selling 39, or 75 percent, of the 52 works on offer. Its marquee lot, Nicolas Poussin’s Ordination, ca. late 1630s, from the collection of David Manners, the Duke of Rutland, however, was unsold against an estimate of £15million/25million. Its intended sale had aroused vehement protest before the auction: It meant that not only was Manners prepared to separate it from four other paintings from Poussin’s “Seven Sacraments” series, all of which had been on loan to London’s National Gallery (another from the series is lost, and the seventh is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), but also to let it leave the country. In 2007 Manners had offered the series to the National Gallery in London for £100million, but a price could not be agreed on.
At Christie’s, the market apparently decided that Ordination was still priced too high, and the painting received not a single bid. “It has acquired taste,” said dealer Jean-Luc Baroni, meaning the work had limited appeal. “It would also have been like buying a bit of something,” he added, “and embarrassing to have further split the series up, which is why I wasn’t interested.”
But the failure of the Poussin did not mean that the bottom has dropped out of the Old Master market. In the same sale, a realistic depiction of the Pentecost by the 15th-century Flemish Master of the Baroncelli Portraits—so named for two paintings by the artist in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence—soared above its £1million/1.5million estimate to sell to Baroni for £4.2million ($6.6million). Another bidding battle took place over a magnificent, sweeping 17th-century view of Haarlem by Gerritt Adriaensz. Berckheyde, for which a phone buyer paid a record £2.6million ($4.1million), underbid by dealer Johnny Van Haeften (estimate: £500,000/700,000). Van Haeften was more successful with a beautifully composed 1627 still life by Pieter Claesz., which he bought for £229,250 ($360,000), well above the estimate of £100,000/150,000.
The best 18th-century British paintings were in high demand. A sensitive portrait of the young Luke Gardiner, Viscount Mountjoy by Joshua Reynolds doubled estimates, selling to dealer Daniel Katz for £553,250 ($868,600) against an estimate of £200,000/300,000, and Richard Green fought off several bidders to buy a large, sumptuously painted portrait of the Countess of Wilton by Thomas Lawrence for £1.8million ($2.8million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000—the second-highest price on record for a work by the artist.
Other dealers buying at the sale include Philip Mould, who bought Portrait of King Edward VI, by an anonymous 16th-century artist, for £325,250 ($510,642) on an estimate of £150,000/250,000; Paris dealer Georges de Jonckheere, who bought Lucas Cranach I’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows for £205,250 ($322,242) against an estimate of £80,000/120,000; and Edmondo di Robilant, who bought Anne Vallayer-Coster’s still life A Bust of Minerva…, 1777, for £265,250 ($416,442) on an estimate of £250,000/350,000.
The next day, sparks flew at Bonhams when an atmospheric view of a church interior, thought to be from the studio of Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597–1665), was offered with an estimate of £20,000/30,000. At least two bidders thought the work was by Saenredam himself, and it sold for £1.5 million ($2.4 million). Overall, though, 39 of the 85 lots in Bonhams’ £3million sale were bought in, producing a sell-through rate of only 54 percent.
However, Sotheby’s sale on December 8 provided evidence that money was there for the right works. A superbly drawn, insightful portrait of a elderly woman by a 17th-century artist known only by the monogram I.S. sold to Katz for £577,250 ($906,282)—more than ten times its £30,000/50,000 estimate—while Green again went above estimate to buy the best British portrait, Johann Zoffany’s stylish Portrait of Claud Alexander with his brother Boyd, attended by an Indian Servant, for £769,250 ($1.2 million) on a £400,000/600,000 estimate. Green also bought a still life by Jan Jansz. van de Velde for £481,250 ($755,562), within the £400,000/600,000 estimate.
In an interesting development, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s said that a significant portion (6 percent and 8 percent, respectively) of buyers at the Old Master sales were from Asia. The problem, as usual, was drumming up a sufficient supply of good-quality works to meet the demand, and lots being sold by British aristocrats became a familiar sight. A number of these did well, provided they were not estimated too highly. The top price of the week was a record £10.1million ($15.9million), paid at Sotheby’s for Brood Mares and Foals, a tranquil masterpiece by George Stubbs. The work came from the collection of Richard Parker, the Earl of Macclesfield. The sale, though, was a close call, with only one bidder prepared to meet the bullish estimate of £10million/15million.
Also offered at Sotheby’s were some 30 works from the estate of George Villiers, the seventh Earl of Clarendon, who died last year. Most were low-value formal portraits, but La Virgen del sombrero, by 16th-century Spanish artist Luis de Morales, fetched a record £1.6million ($2.5million), four times the estimate of £250,000/350,000.
At Christie’s, £4.4million ($6.9million) worth of Old Masters were sold from the Portland Collection—the treasures inherited by the late Anne Cavendish Bentinck, the elder daughter of the last Duke of Portland and one of the U.K.’s wealthiest women, who died two years ago. One of the stars of the Portland collection was The Adoration of the Shepherds, a highly charged Nativity scene by the Northern Caravaggist Gerrit van Honthorst, which sold for a record £1.1million ($1.7million) against an £800,000/1.2million estimate. Earlier in the week Christie’s had taken in £8.6million ($13.8million) for items of jewelry from the Portland collection.