Old Masters Prices On The Rise With World Record-Breaking Sales

07/08/2011 08:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

(Via Mutual Art)

Sotheby's and Christie's made headlines this week for record-smashing sales, achieving the second and third-highest Old Master auction prices ever. The annual Master Paintings Week swung into action July 1st, with 23 top galleries and the leading London auction houses showcasing a wealth of masterpieces from the 15th-20th centuries. Alongside the Old Master sales at Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams, the collaborating galleries kicked off a week of coinciding shows, collectively know as Master Drawings London. The spotlight this year turned on newly discovered masterpieces, Venetian view paintings, and British painters who ruled the auction floor.

Christie's was first to test the category's 2011 market strength with its evening sale on Tuesday. On the positive side, Christie's achieved the category's third highest total for the house in London, raising £49.8 million ($80 million). On the down side, the total only managed to slightly exceed the low estimate, based on hammer prices, and found a 68% success rate for the 61 lots offered (83% by value). "It was a fantastic British picture sale, not a very good Old Master auction," said London dealer Charles Beddington, specializing in Italian view paintings. Nonetheless, the night witnessed several artist records, including for Thomas Gainsborough, Simon Jacobsz. de Vlieger, Taddeo Gaddi and George Stubbs - whose record also succeeded as the third most valuable Old Master painting ever sold at auction.

Stubbs' 1765 Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainer, a jockey and a stable lad fetched the record-breaking £22.4 million ($36 million) against a £20-30 million estimate, elevating the artist to the blue-chip level of Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner and Pontormo - the only Old Masters to surpass £20 million at auction. Considered Britain's top equestrian artist, the 6-foot high portrayal of Gimcrack, a popular 18th century racehorse, is touted by Christie's as one of the greatest-ever sporting paintings. The picture was last sold in 1951 for a mere £12,600; on Tuesday it was won by a single bid in the room from NY gallery Piers Davies Fine Art, more than doubling Stubbs' previous record set in December 2010 for Brood mares and foals.

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Gainsborough stepped into second place with his £6.5 million ($10.5 million) record price for the late 18th-century Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois (estimated £4-6 million). The 7ft. tall full-length portrait depicts the granddaughter of brewer Benjamin Truman, dazzling in an impressive powder-blue silk dress. Another Gainsborough was estimated to capture third-place that night with an estimate of £3.5-5 million, but the Portrait of John Bullock failed to secure a buyer; instead Michelangelo stole the spot with a single phone bid of £3.2 million for a double-sheet drawing of a nude male. The rarely-seen, powerful sketch sold just above its low estimate, reflecting the drawing's condition, dealers said.

Slightly more than ⅔ of the bidders came from the UK and Europe, with another 24% from the Americas and 7% from Asia and Middle East. Richard Knight and Paul Raison, Heads of Old Masters and 19th Century Art at Christie's London stated, "We saw a particularly high level of interest and bidding from new clients, including a significant number from Asia. A noticeable change in the market for Old Masters is that we are welcoming collectors who buy across a range of categories, driven by quality, and these collectors are adding a new energy to certain sectors of this field." Last year's equivalent sale had roughly the same success rate by lot (70%), yet proved less valuable, totaling £42.3 million ($64.2 million). Christie's highest total for a mixed-owner Old Masters offering was £68.4 million in December 2009.

The company's British Drawings and Watercolors sale earlier in the day finished just above estimate earning £6.3 million. Of the 184 lots, Francisco de Goya was the only artist to pass the £1 million mark, fetching £2,281,250 ($3,668,250) for Hutiles trabajos (Useful work). There were however several lots that trampled expectations; Nicolas Bernard Lepicie's nude male drawing climbed to £58,850, a 636% increase above the estimate (£6,000-8,000). Eugene Delacroix also reached seven times his high estimate, while Bartolomeo Pinelli and Thomas Forster achieved prices 400% and 453% above estimate, respectively.

On Wednesday night, Sotheby's evening sale performed head-to-head with rival Christie's, bringing a strong total of £47,640,900 ($76,492,229). Just shy of matching the pre-sale high estimate (£48,120,00), the house sold 50 of the 73 offered lots with a 91.6% rate for value and an average lot value of £952,818. Yet more than half of the company's success is attributed to one artist only - Francesco Guardi, whose Venice view painting established not only the highest price of the week, but also the highest price for any work sold of art at an International auction house in 2011. Beating its £15-25 million estimate, Guardi smashed the record for the 2nd highest auction price ever for an Old Master painting, fetching an incredible £26,697,250 ($42,865,105). An anonymous telephone bidder won the grand scale painting after a heated battle with another determined bidder; the lot had never appeared at auction before and is one of only four works that the artist painted on such a large scale. It is widely hailed as one of Guardi's greatest masterpieces, and rated by dealers as his greatest work on the auction floor since 1989. The sale also constitutes a personal record for the artist and for any Venetian view painting.

In addition to Guardi's show-stealing accomplishment, seven other artist records were set at Sotheby's, including the second and third highest hammer prices during the night. Correggio, whose works rarely find their way to auction, captured second place with his record-breaking 1514 portrayal of Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, securing a buyer for £3,625,250 ($5,820,701). In third place, a double-sided altarpiece panel by Hans Schaufelein (one of Durer's three main pupils) sold for £2,729,250 ($4,382,084). Masterpieces by Anthony Van Dyck, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, John Constable, and Frans Jansz. Post. also lifted the sale's strong total, including two newly discovered Van Dyck works: Portrait of a Carmelite monk, head and shoulders, circa 1617-20 and A Bearded Man with Hands Raised circa 1616.

"It is unprecedented for Sotheby's to offer in a single sale one of the greatest Venetian view paintings by Franesco Guardi, together with a newly discovered work by one of the key artists of the Italian Renaissance, Correggio, as well as two newly identified paintings by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. These works will appeal to collectors seeking museum-quality works of extraordinary provenance," said Alex Bell, Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings. Van Dyck's "psychologically penetrating" rendition of the monk had been passed down through the same family for over 200 years, realizing £713,250 ($1,145,194) at its auction debut. The bearded portrait achieved £457,250 ($734,161); an oil study completed during Van Dyck's time working in Ruben's studio, the work had not been attributed to the master until Sotheby's identified it as the same figure used in other van Dyck sketches for his paintings, such as The Betrayal of Christ.

Bonhams trailed farther behind its larger competitors at its Old Master Paintings sale on Wednesday afternoon, finding buyers for just 60 of its 129 lots. With an average total lots estimate of £3,775,000, the house only raised £2,817,400 as pre-sale expectations were repeatedly dashed. Pietro Fabris was predicted to take the top slot with his view of the Bay of Naples, which at £557,600 did champion its £500,000 high estimate, but failed against a surprise success by Lucas Gassel. The grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba (right) took top honors with am impressive £624,800 sale price against a mere £70,000 - 100,000 estimate. However, expected to reach third place, Jacob Philippe Hackert's A view of the Bay of Pozzuoli (est. £250,000-350,000) failed to sell.

The final push of the week occurs today, with Christie's upcoming prints sale estimated to accrue an additional £2,939,500 for its Old Master tally; the Day Sale yesterday brought another £2,352,575 (est. £5,861,000). Sotheby's will also have two more chances to boost its total and possibly triumph over Christie's; today's Old Master & British Paintings Day Sale is expected to reach an average sale total of £10,240,500 and the Drawings sale another £5,701,500.

Written by Staff

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