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Slim pickings from Old Masters sales in a lukewarm London

Most of the consignments this season were really not up to scratch, with Christie’s, in particular, taking something of a beating

Auctions are entirely dependent on what people want to sell, and no star lots accordingly means no stellar prices. This time around, the consignors of important pictures were few and far between, and the combined evening sale totals for Sotheby’s and Christie’s were below expectations at a somewhat pedestrian £29.1m (with premium; £24.7m without). This time last year, Sotheby’s alone made £53.9m. 

The total reached at Sotheby’s December evening sale, on 9 December, was £19.3m hammer (£22.6m with premium, estimate £21.8m-£32.6m). And at Christie’s the previous evening, the total was a very disappointing £5.4m (£6.5m with premium, estimate £12.7m-£19.3m).

The December sales in London are traditionally less exciting than the July sales, and already most Old Master eyes have turned to the January auctions in New York. But the lack of major pictures on offer in London helped highlight the growing chasm between Sotheby’s and Christie’s Old Masters departments, and this was the main story of a disappointing week.

At Christie’s, only one picture broke the million-pound mark, a Bird Trap  from Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which sold for £1m hammer (£1.2m with premium, estimate £1m-£1.5m). Just 40% of Christie’s lots were sold by value. Not since 2002 has Christie’s made such a low December Old Master sale total.

The generally more impressive pictures on show at Sotheby’s were evidence of the growing momentum of its Old Masters department. Headlining the Sotheby’s sale was John Constable’s The Lock (around 1824-25), estimated at £8m to £12m, which sold for £8m hammer (£9.1m with premium).

A fine Virgin and Child by Jan Gossaert (around 1478-1532) also sold at the low estimate of £4m to make £4.6m including premium (a new auction record for Gossaert), while a brave online bidder clicked all the way up to £720,000 (£869,000 with premium) for Peasants’ Brawl by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-around 1637).

Sotheby’s overall total was relatively low by its standards, but continued a trend of outpacing Christie’s efforts over the past five years. Sotheby’s total for its December sales in London was, at £188m (with premium), more than twice that of Christie’s £77.8m.

A selection of works from Sotheby’s January sale in New York was also on view in Bond Street, including Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë (1621, estimate $25m-$35m).

Down the road at Christie’s, no New York January highlights were on show: it has moved its January sale to April and rebranded it as Classic Art. Has a white flag been raised? Those who believe in Old Masters must hope not for we need the might of both major auction houses (not to mention the enthusiasm of their talented staff) to go out and make the case for what I hope we never have to call ‘classic art’.

PLEASE NOTE: Auction houses routinely add the buyer’s premium to the sale price yet quote pre-sale estimates without this fee. The Art Newspaper and a number of other publications are now quoting the hammer price at sale as well to make comparison between the price achieved and the estimate easier. In London, Sotheby’s buyer premium rates are 25% on the first £100,000 ($200,000 in New York), 20% between £100,000 and £1.8m ($200,000 and $3m), and 12% for prices above this. Christie’s and Phillips’ rates are 25% on the first £50,000 ($100,000), 20% between £50,000 and £1m ($100,000 and $2m), and 12% above this.