Old Masters continue to perplex. The latest edition of London’s “Classic Week”, featuring auctions of historical artworks from the 19th century to antiquity, seemed, on paper at least, to be the strongest on offer since the Covid-19 pandemic.
There was noticeably more footfall on the viewing days. Outstanding pieces, such the first major William Hogarth painting to be offered for 50 years (at Sotheby’s) and an untouched, forgotten masterwork by the 17th-century Flemish painter Michael Sweerts and a rediscovered Fra Angelico (both offered at Christie’s) attracted plenty of admirers. Dealers say Christie’s had the fresher material.
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s 49-lot evening sale of Old Masters raised £39.4m (with fees), the highest total for an Old Master sale in London since July 2019, according to the auction house. Though eight lots were guaranteed, a hefty 35% of works still failed to find buyers and the final total was well down on the £56.1m Sotheby’s took from just 37 lots in its equivalent auction in 2019.
“We’re seeing very strong prices for strong pictures. But the market is a little selective. It’s very price sensitive,” says Alex Bell, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of Old Masters. He also points out that high interest rates and inflation have made buyers more hesitant.
In terms of estimated prices, the high-value core of Sotheby’s auction came from guaranteed works entered by a seller identified by dealers as the UK-based financier, landowner and collector, Luca Padulli, who in 2017 sold a cache of his Old Masters to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California for a reported $100m.
The impressive multi-figure early Netherlandish panel painting, Pentecost, by the Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, was the most highly valued of these entries, estimated at £7m to £10m.
Pentecost had last appeared on the market at Christie’s in 2010, when it had been a £4.2m impulse buy for the London-based Old Masters dealer Jean-Luc Baroni, who at that time had been acquiring works for Padulli.
“I totally missed it at the view. But when it came up at the auction, I thought it was a fantastic picture,” recalls Baroni, who was impressed by the scale, quality and rarity of the work. Pentecost duly entered the collection of Padulli, who in 2013 placed the painting on long-term loan to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. Here at Sotheby’s it sold for £7.9m (all prices quoted are with fees), to a single bid from its third-party guarantor.
Thanks to its pristine condition The Virgin and Child, with the infant St John the Baptist, St Francis and St Catherine of Siena (around 1530) by the Sienese Mannerist painter Domenico Beccafumi, from the same source, drew more competition, selling to an American telephone bid for £5.1m against a low estimate of £3m. But a rare pair of small, freely painted views of Venice by Canaletto, from the 1720s, were somehow knocked down for £2.1m, far below the guaranteed £3m low estimate. Previously offered for sale by a London dealer, these had been acquired by Padulli after selling at auction in 2010 for $3.9m.
“Our buyers don’t really treat Old Masters as an investment market,” Bell says.
That may be the case, but a wealthy financier who, according to The Times, owns 29,000 acres of farmland in Norfolk and Yorkshire and controls the lucrative freeholds of 100,000 properties in the UK, surely likes to make a profit.
One seller at Sotheby’s who did see a bumper return on investment was the owner of the large 17th century painting, Saint Sebastian tended by two Angels, which had been acquired for less than $100,000 at Ivey-Selkirk auction in St. Louis back in 2008. Then attributed to the French painter Laurent de la Hyre, it has now been recognised by scholars as a Rubens, most probably an early work from about 1608-9. Despite its unappealing subject, this found a buyer at £5.1m, in line with its pre-sale guarantee.
The real problem area of the sale was works priced in the £100,000 to £400,000 bracket. A swathe of decorative Old Masters of the sort that dealers at Tefaf Maastricht used to sell to well-heeled “professional class” collectors was left unsold. An opulent 1628 Still life with Flowers in a glass Vase by Anthony Claesz was a telling example, failing to reach a low estimate of £200,000. Way back in 1999 it sold for £265,000 at auction.
“Classic collectors have disappeared completely. People only buy the big names. The market isn’t interested in classic works. It’s a museum or nothing,” says the London-based dealer Marco Voena, commenting on the current market’s seismic shift in collecting taste away from historical art.
Perhaps the most perplexing result of the night was the performance of Hogarth’s colourful, well-preserved1742 painting, Taste in High Life (or Taste à-la-Mode). Sold by a descendant of Edward Cecil Guinness, the Earl of Iveagh, and exhibited at Kenwood House in London for several years, this satirical take-down of the idiocies and excesses of Georgian London’s fashionable beau monde sold to single bid of £2.5m (albeit a record for the artist) from a private collector on a phone.
Surely Hogarth, who is increasingly viewed by scholars as one of the two or three most innovative and influential artists working in England in the 18th century, is a big enough name? But a young black man being treated as a rich Englishwoman's mascot may well have been a problematic presence in the painting for today’s would-be buyers, particularly museums.
“A prominently placed figure like that would have definitely caused people to question,” says the London-based dealer Jonny Yarker, adding that Tate Britain’s revisionist take in its 2021-22 exhibition Hogarth and Europe, “didn’t help.” Yarker also pointed out that the painting had been “luxuriously cleaned.”
Content and condition, as well a pure commerce, can also be a challenge for Old Masters.