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Old masters out-perform impressionist and contemporary art in summer sales

Strong material means market remains buoyant

london. Old master paintings sold solidly at a series of auctions in London this week, out-performing the summer’s impressionist, modern and contemporary sales for the first time in several years.

Christie’s sale on 7 July reached a total of £20m, with 76% of the 63 lots selling–a 10% improvement on sell-through rates in recent years, bolstered by the inclusion of 19th-century paintings for the first time.

At Sotheby’s, the evening old master sale on 8 July brought in a total of £36m, compared with £33m for the summer impressionist auctions and £25m for the modern and contemporary sales. Both major auction houses have struggled in the latter categories to find strong material, reducing pre-sale price estimates.

This has not been the case for old master paintings, according to Sotheby’s department co-chairman George Gordon. “Estimates are no lower than two years ago–the market has been maintained,” he said.

The top lot at Sotheby’s was what is considered to be Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s finest version of The Massacre of the Innocents, around 1605-10, which sold for £4.6m (est £2.5m-£3.5m). It was followed by Jusepe de Ribera’s Prometheus, around 1630, which sold for £3.9m—more than three times the high estimate of £1.2m and well in excess of the previous record auction price paid for the artist. The Ribera was from the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born philanthropist, which made almost £10m in a 56-lot sale as part of Sotheby’s old master evening auction.

At Christie’s, the top lots at £2.2m were the Florentine Fra Bartolommeo’s The Madonna and Child in a landscape with Saint Elizabeth and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, 1516, and Michele Giovanni Marieschi’s Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, around 1735 (both est £2m-£3m).

Among a number of new auction records set during the sales, some beautiful works by lesser known artists did particularly well, including the Florentine Giuliano Bugiardini’s luminous half-length Portrait of a Young Man, around 1525-30, which sold for £825,000 (est £150,000-£250,000) at Christie’s, and three panels from the same altar piece, around 1350, by the Sienese Luca di Tommè, which each sold for around £900,000 against estimates of £400,000-£600,000 at Sotheby’s.

Meanwhile, two paintings also set new artist records at Bonhams’ old master sale on 8 July: a View of the Tiber, newly attributed to Giuseppe Zocchi(1711-67), sold for £1.3m (est £150,000-£250,000) and Jacob Van Oost’s Boy at a Stone Window, which sold for £624,000, more than ten times the estimate of £50,000. The sale achieved a total of £2,857,400.

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