Old Masters market shows some life in New York auctions

Leonardo buzz may have given bidding a boost, but results still show a sharp divide between the best and the rest

Diego Velázquez's Portrait Of Monsignor Cristoforo Segni (d. 1661), Maggiordomo To Pope Innocent X, achieved $4.06m at Sotheby's Courtesy of Sotheby's

Diego Velázquez's Portrait Of Monsignor Cristoforo Segni (d. 1661), Maggiordomo To Pope Innocent X, achieved $4.06m at Sotheby's Courtesy of Sotheby's

This week’s auctions of Old Master paintings and drawings in New York, while stronger than last year's, underscored the bifurcation in the market. As Munich dealer Martin Graessle sums it up: “It is easier today to sell a work for $1m than one for $10,000.” Some prices, particularly for drawings, reached impressive levels. “We had really deep interest from all over the world. That was not always the case in recent years”, says Christopher Apostle, the head of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department. “Also, we had new bidders and younger bidders”.

Could this interest be attributed to the record-setting sale of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi at Christie's last November? “It energised the market a little bit without profoundly changing it”, says Christie’s international head of drawings, Stijn Alsteens. ”It was a reminder of the relevance of the field”.

A pair of pristine works by Canaletto—The Churches Of The Redentore And San Giacomo and Venice, The Prisons And The Bridge Of Sighs, Looking Northwest From The Balcony—sold for $4.18m at Sotheby's Courtesy of Sotheby's

Sotheby’s dominated the week, offering more than 900 paintings, sculptures and drawings over three days. At Christie’s, where master paintings will be sold during "Classic Week” in mid-April, the Old Master drawings department presented a slim sale of 93 lots on 30 January. With a sell-through rate of 62%, the auction notched $3.9m with fees, just breaching the pre-sale estimate of $3.5m to $5.3m. Asian bidders were active here, including as underbidders on the top lot, J.M.W. Turner’s Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer (1828). Hailing from the well-known collection of Texan cattle rancher Montgomery Ritchie, the late watercolour fetched $1.09m.

Drawings, too, were the star attraction at Sotheby's, which on 31 January presented a carefully edited offering from the estate of the esteemed New York collectors Saretta and Howard Barnet. Over four decades the Barnets had focussed on amassing exceptional examples by top names across periods and schools, from Parmigianino to Lucian Freud. The quality of the individual works excited collectors and institutions, with 19 of the 28 works finding buyers for a total of $11.6m, far surpassing expectations (est $5m-$7.2m). The top lot—an extremely rare, heavily inked drawing of a landscape around Shoreham, Kent, by Samuel Palmer (around 1831)—was claimed by a New York collector, briefly challenged by the London dealer Stephen Ongpin, for a high $2m, or $2.4m with fees. The same buyer also won fiercely contested graphite and pencil drawings by Ingrès and Picasso. An exquisite brush drawing by Goya, showing an old woman hunched over a basket full of eggs, will make its way into a European private collection for $2.1m.

Samuel Palmer's ink drawing A Church With A Boat And Sheep (circa 1831), from the Howard and Saretta Barnet collection, achieved $2.4m Courtesy of Sotheby's

Results were satisfactory for Sotheby's 31 January offering from the New York dealer Otto Naumann, with 30 sold lots for $6.16m. Naumann's renowned eye surely encouraged the eight artist records set for minor names, including Giovanni Bilivert and Denys Calvaert. The evening sale of Old Master paintings on 1 February offered no breakout stars but landed at a satisfying, mid-estimate $48.4m. The result is an increase of roughly 80 percent over the last year, but that was also a much smaller sale. Only 18 lots of 73 were bought in. Canaletto’s pair of Venice views with the church Il Redentore, the Prisons and the Bridge of Sighs, in nearly pristine condition, led the evening with a final price of $4.18m.

J.M.W. Turner's watercolour The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer (1828) realized $1.09 at Christie's on 30 January Courtesy of Christie's

The Canaletto duo was followed by an impressive portrait by Diego Velázquez (with some help in minor passages by his Italian colleague Neri) of Monsignor Cristoforo Segni, Maggiordomo to Pope Innocent X (around 1650). The work, recently rediscovered, was included in the Velázquez survey at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2015; since then, according to dealers, Sotheby’s had offered the painting privately for over $10m. In the end, it went to auction with a guarantee, and two bidders pushed the painting just over the low estimate, to $3.4m, or $4.1m with fees.  

A true discovery, thanks to last year’s record of $4.6m for his lovely Flora from the same period, was Willem Drost’s Roman Charity (1655-57). London private dealer Johnny van Haeften happily tripled the $200,000 to $300,000 estimate for the still uncleaned painting, nabbing it for $1.1m. After the auction, beaming dealers trickled out of the saleroom. “It was a great sale. There’s life out there”, says New York dealer Robert Simon.