Without any seven-figure lots on offer, Christie’s and Sotheby’s brought in a collective $12.9m in New York with their mid-season Old Masters sales this week. Nevertheless, specialists at both auction houses dismissed suggestions that the Old Masters market may be ailing.
While Old Masters dominated the art market for decades, the category of European Old Masters made up just 4% of the art market’s $67.8bn in sales in 2022, according to the most recent Art Market report published by Art Basel and UBS.
Christie’s New York brought in $5m ($6.3m with fees) over two sales: a second auction of a single-owner collection of paintings amassed by Jacqui Eli Safra, a film producer and descendent of the Swiss Lebanese banking family, that sold without reserve for $2.6m ($3.2m with fees) and a seasonal Old Masters sale that fetched $2.4m ($3m with fees).
The most valuable work from the 74-lot Safra sale on 24 May was Jean-Baptiste-Camile Corot’s painting of the rural French countryside, which sold for $280,000 ($352,800 with fees) against a $60,000 to $80,000 estimate. The second most valuable painting from the Safra sale depicted Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Greek mythology, by female Neoclassical artist Angelica Kauffman and sold for $170,000 ($214,000 with fees).
In the seasonal Old Masters sale on 25 May, Christ before Pilate by Giuseppe Vermiglio sold for $380,000 ($478,000 with fees), making it the most valuable lot of the auction. But one of the more surprising sales of the day was a portrait attributed to Frans Pourbus the Elder, which sold for $220,000 ($277,200 with fees) against a $50,000 to $80,000 estimate.
While Old Masters’ share of the art market has decreased over the past few decades, Christie’s international head of the Old Masters department François de Poortere says the two mid-season sales’ 88% sell-through rate by lot and 81% hammer by low estimate show the market is still healthy. In January, Christie’s Old Masters sales brought in $62.7m, including $14.7m from the first part of the Safra sale. During another sale from various owners in January, dual portraits of a mother and daughter by Francisco Goya fetched $14m ($16.4m with fees), setting a new auction record for the Spanish master.
“We keep proving it wrong,” De Poortere says of the notion that the Old Masters portion of the market is slipping. “Great pictures sell. Old Masters, when you find the right material, is an incredibly buoyant market.” He added, “Freshness is very key. The excitement of a picture that hasn't been seen on the market for a very, very long time never tarnishes and people love it.”
Sotheby’s two sales that included Old Masters grossed $6.6m with fees. The first, an auction of Old Master paintings and 19th century European art on 26 May fetched nearly $4.3m ($5.4m with fees) while an online sale that lasted from 18 May until 26 May brought in $815,200 ($1m with fees).
The most valuable lot at Sotheby’s was Jan Brueghel the Elder’s A village landscape with a market (1613), which fetched $889,000 with fees. The most exciting sale may have been a painting of what is said to be Pompon, Marie Antoinette’s pet dog, by Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre. Offered without reserve, 15 bidders pushed the painting’s final price to $279,400 with fees against a $3,000 to $5,000 estimate. That result set a new auction record for Delamarre's work. (Sotheby’s also held a sale of 19th-century art on 24 May that grossed $1m, including fees.)
“I feel very happy with the market and the results,” says Christopher Apostle, Sotheby's head of Old Masters in New York, who noted that the auction house’s Modern sale earlier this month included an Old Master painting that did well: Peter Paul Rubens’s Portrait of a Man as Mars (around 1620) fetched $22.5m ($26.1m with fees).
“What was interesting about it was getting it in front of a new audience,” Apostle says. “I saw people that were not buyers of Old Masters looking at it and being tempted or being amazed by the work.”
Apostle also isn't concerned about the art market’s appetite for Old Master works. “Great Old Masters are harder to find than just about any other area. And if you've got something great, then you absolutely have buyers for it at a very high level,” Apostle says. He added that there are plenty of Old Master works being sold on the private market.
“I'm not so worried about what our percentage of the worldwide market is because we're rare,” Apostle says.