2014 Auction Season Kicks off with Old Master Week – Preview and Predictions (UPDATED)

With the recent publication of auction house heavy-weights, Christie’s and Sotheby’s figures for 2013 (Christie’s art sales totaling, a record $7.1 billion), all eyes will be on New York City today, as auction season kicks off with January Old Master sales. As we turn over the last page of the 2013 calendar, another exciting year awaits the art market in 2014. With the same question on the lips of many, will this yet again be a record-setting year?

As artwork within the modern and contemporary markets keep surpassing their own record-breaking prices, the works by Old Masters haven’t achieved the same jaw dropping sale prices as their “younger” counterparts. In Christie’s publication of top lots from 2013 sales, only one Old Master painting is included in the list (Fra Bartolommeo’s The Madonna and Child, from the 16th century, selling for an impressive $12 million, while Francis Bacon’s Lucien Freud triptych, from 1969, sold for a cool, $142 million – a record for any artist). Interestingly, the highest price for a work of the Old Master variety is still Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, selling for $69.7 million at Sotheby’s in 2002.

However, when the contemporary art bubble does (eventually) burst, I believe works by Old Masters will retain their value. As the saying goes, “the higher the risk, the higher the reward”, the same holds true for the art world. Although Old Masters don’t yield significant margins, they remain a consistently more secure investment.

After perusing the Old Master catalogues from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, there are some notable highlights that are definitely worth mentioning, either for their irresistible charm or artworks that could fetch high prices. Also, in addition to both sales categorized as Old Masters, there is a smaller theme weaving through the two auctions: the Rothschild dynasty. Christie’s keynote lot, The Rothschild Prayerbook (dating from the 16th century, this illuminated manuscript derives its name from it’s famous owner,  Baron Anselm von Rothschild who owned the book in the 1800s, and sadly was appropriated by the Nazis in 1938). The story of Nazi-looted art doesn’t end there for the Rothschild family, Sotheby’s sale catalogue, includes four works looted from the Rothschilds after the fall of France, and were eventually returned to the family by the American Allies’ Monuments Men.

Highlights from the Christie’s Catalogue(s):
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DAVID TENIERS II (Antwerp 1610-1690 Brussels)
Peasants Playing Cards in an Interior
Estimate: $400,000 – 600,000 | SOLD $905,000
Not having graced the auction block since the 19th century, the provenance of this painting is of particular interest (and could in fact, lead to a high estimate sale price); once owned by the Churchills, Peasants hung at Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. As the catalogue caption describes: “The virtuoso brushwork — evident in details such as the hairs on the chin of the man in the blue cap, the stub of a candle above the fireplace, and the refection of the Raeren jug at lower left — suggests that Teniers conceived of this work primarily as a technical tour-de-force meant to impress the viewer with his painterly skill”

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GIANDOMENICO TIEPOLO (Venice 1727 – 1804)
I Cani Sapienti (The Dancing Dogs)
Estimate: $2,000,000 – 3,000,000 | SOLD $3,637,000 
One of the bigger ticket items, this work by Giandomenico Tiepolo (Tiepolo, the elder), represents typical scenes of his work – genteel daily life. There is something quite amusing about the dogs in costumes, and the sense of movement by the tambourine player – the painting depicts a jovial / festive spirit, immediately capturing audiences.

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JEAN-BAPTISTE PATER (Valenciennes 1695-1736 Paris)
A fête Champêtre
Estimate: $300,000 – 500,000 | DID NOT SELL
Fête Champêtre, the classic playfulness of early 18th century French painting, depicting merry social occasions amidst pastoral landscapes. As noted in the catalogue: “Like his master Antoine Watteau, Pater often made several variant versions of his favorite fête galante compositions by combining and recombining figures within them to ever different effect. The present painting is a graceful example of Pater’s work at its most refined.” Pater’s close connection to Watteau as his student, undoubtedly adds to the painting’s value.

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FRANÇOIS BOUCHER and STUDIO (Paris 1703-1770)
Two Nymphs of Diana Resting After Their Return from the Hunt
Estimate $70,000 – 100,000 | SOLD $197,000
The estimated price for this work by the great Rococo style master, Boucher, is extremely reasonable and would be a steal for any budding art collector. Watch this space – I would be inclined to predict a final sale price higher than its pre-sale estimate.

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ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI (Rome 1593-1654 Naples)
Self-Portrait as a Lute Player
Estimate: $3,000,000 – 5,000,000 | DID NOT SELL (HIGHEST BID $2 MILLION)
The lovely Artemisia has the privileged honor of gracing the exhibition catalogue’s cover and with an estimate of $3 million – $5 million, it is surely worth the extra publicity.
From the exhibition catalogue: “In Artemisia’s Self- Portrait as a Lute Player, her prominently exposed, full breasts seem to make such an allusion, yet her clear-eyed, serious, impenetrable expression hints at a more complex underlying meaning. Mann has observed that Artemisia is likely presenting herself in costume, deliberately playing a role (Mann, 2001, op. cit., p. 324).”

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The Virgin of Humility
Estimate: $800,000 – 1,000,000 | SOLD $785,000
Christie’s Renaissance sale (part of the Old Master auction series), is dominated by a wealth of Madonna and Child scenes. In light of Byzantine art (characterized by iconographical works) being re-introduced to audiences, notably by the National Gallery of Art (in Washington, D.C.)’s Heaven and Earth exhibition – could there be increased demand for allegorical / religious paintings?

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The Virgin with the Christ Child standing on a pillow
Estimate: $500,000 – 800,000 | SOLD: $545,000
One of the most beautiful paintings from this year’s sale – the loving gaze shared and strong emotional connection between mother and child is immediately conveyed by this piece in a very touching way. As noted in the catalogue: “Van Orley’s so-called Romanist style finds expression in the infant’s robust physique and contrapposto stance, which can be related in particular to Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna of 1501-1504 (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, Bruges), which Van Orley would have known.” This piece will surely capture the heart of any bidder!

THE ROTHSCHILD PRAYERBOOK, a Book of Hours, use of Rome, in Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum
[Ghent or Bruges, c.1505-1510] | SOLD $13.6 MILLION
The showpiece of the auction is considered part of the “manuscrits-de-luxe” family fabricated for members of the Habsburg Court, dating from the late 15th century / early 16th century. A project of this nature, complete with elaborate decoration and detail was painstakingly achieved by the cooperation of several Netherlandish fine artists. As the exhibition catalogue dully mentions:  “The Rothschild Prayerbook is the most beautiful and immediately affecting of this illustrious group and is a treasury of the work of the most gifted artists of the Flemish Renaissance”. It was last sold in 1999 for $13.4 million.
All Photo Credits: Christie’s

Highlights from the Sotheby’s Catalogue(s):
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APOLLONIO DI GIOVANNI (Florence 1416 – 1465)
Triumph of Marcus Furius Camillus
Estimate: $150,000 — 200,000 | SOLD: $701,000
As the provenance notes of the exhibition catalogue state, this piece was stolen from the French Rothschilds, stashed in a Bavarian monastery, eventually recovered by the Monuments Men, and finally restituted to the family in 1946.

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PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER (Brussels 1564 – 1637/8 Antwerp)
The Bird Trap
Estimate: $1,500,000 — 2,500,000 | SOLD: $2.7 MILLION
The Sotheby’s catalogue does include numerous versions of seascapes and landscapes, The Bird Trap is of one of two at auction by the artist. The lower-end estimate for both works by Brueghel, the Younger are over the million dollar mark, and I believe the final price will be just as high. The title along with the image depicted, do not appear to align, however as explained in the catalogue notes:
“It has been suggested that the underlying subject of The Bird Trap is the precariousness of life, which is marked by the birds total ignorance to the threat of the trap that awaits them. This notion is furthered by the image of the carefree skaters playing upon the fragile ice seemingly unconcerned by the potential danger of it cracking.”

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JEAN-HONORÉ FRAGONARD (Grasse 1732 – 1806 Paris)
Two Girls Playing on a Bed with Their Dogs
Estimate: $6,000,000 — 8,000,000 | DID NOT SELL
The most expensive piece in the Sotheby’s catalogue, and unfortunately, a rather dull painting by the iconic French painter, Fragonard. As the catalogue notes state: “The spontaneous brushwork clearly illustrates why Fragonard’s virtuoso technique so impressed his contemporaries and why his style still resonates with the modern viewer as much as it did for the members of the court of Louis XV” – hopefully art collectors will feel just as moved.

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Laurent de la Hyre (Paris 1606 – 1656)
Allegory of Geometry
Estimate: $800,000 — 1,200,000 | DID NOT SELL
Not only is this painting beautiful, but the iconography that litters this piece is captivating – from the sphinx in the middle ground to the abundance of geometrical instruments, this painting forms part of a series, entitled The Seven Liberal Arts. 

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Jean-Baptiste Greuze (Tournus 1725 – 1803 Paris)
Portrait of the Comtesse du Barry
Estimate: $80,000 — 120,000 | SOLD: $87,000
A notable figure in the Court of Louis XV and of French history, Comtesse du Barry eventually rose to the rank of chief mistress to the King of France. Greuze, the master of portraiture in 18th century France, captured individuals from his everyday life to noble members of the royal courts. His ability to represent details (in this case, beautifully rendering the lace garment of the Comtesse), make his artwork endlessly appealing.
All Photo Credits: Sotheby’s

Christie’s sales last January totaled $82.4 million while Sotheby’s brought in $61 million* worth of sales.  I expect Christie’s sales total to be slightly higher than last year’s results – they are donning a richer catalogue of works than Sotheby’s and more importantly, Christie’s piece de resistance, The Rothschild Prayerbook (with a pre-sale estimate of between $12 million – $18 million) will cement their edge along with impressive sale figures.

Holly knows art. Old Master Auction Calendar:

Old Master Paintings Part 1 – 29 January at 10am (New York)

Renaissance – 29 January at 2pm (New York)
Old Master & Early British Drawings & Watercolors – 30 January at 2pm (New York)
Old Master Paintings Part II – 30 January at 5pm (New York)

Old Master Drawings – 29 January at 10am (New York)
Important Old Master Paintings & Sculpture – 30 January at 10am & 3pm (New York)
The Courts of Europe – 30 January at 2pm (New York)

Old Master & 19th Century Paintings – 31 January at 10am & 2pm (New York)

*Note: Amount does not include sales from Estate of Giancarlo Baroni


3 thoughts on “2014 Auction Season Kicks off with Old Master Week – Preview and Predictions (UPDATED)

  1. I wonder why that Fragonard would go for more than the Brueghel or Gentileschi? Is it taste or economics? Do you have any insight to that? Thanks for the wonderful post!

    • Hi Daezle,

      Thanks for your comment–I’m delighted you enjoyed my recent blog post. In my opinion, Sotheby’s high estimate for Fragonard’s painting, The Two Girls is based upon sale figures from last December, a portrait of François-Henri, the Fifth Duc of D’Harcourt by the artist, which sold for a stunning price of $27.9 million (it also happened to be the highest price achieved for an Old Master painting last year). Sotheby’s prediction is ridding on the coat tails (so to speak) of this astonishingly high price, perhaps sensing a heightened interest in the market for Fragonards. At times the art market can be unpredictable, and the Fragonard’s sale for $27 million is just one of those instances. Examining data relating to Fragonard sale results from recent years, his oil / painted works were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars along with a few single digit million sales here and there. Prior to last December’s sale, the record for the artist was $7.8 million from 1999. A rather large discrepancy, to say the least. I also wanted to mention, The Two Girls was last sold in 2006 for a price of $4.4 million. It will be interesting to see the price this particular Fragonard piece fetches at auction tomorrow.

      Based on Christie’s sale results today, bidders appear to be a bit more cautious (who knows, maybe they’ll be warmed by tomorrow and eager to spend!) and I do think Sotheby’s is being a little optimistic to assign a high value to a rather uninspiring Fragonard – but the market can produce some strange results.

      To answer your question – the Fragonard pricing is mainly economically driven (based on the last sale price being so incredibly high), but there is also an element of taste as well. In the long term (as past sale results show), Brueghel, the Younger’s work has sold for consistently higher prices than Fragonard’s – perhaps indicating a stronger interest for Flemish painting from the late 16th / early 17th century than the French rococo style. However, taste can also be down to subject matter or the depiction of particular scenes that are fashionable for a time. Finally, Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as a Lute Player failed to sell at Christie’s today (the highest bid was $2 million, while the original estimate was between $3 million – $5 million). I believe the high value was based upon this artist’s limited portfolio of work (hence, rarely on sale). I also think there may have been a renewed interest in costume portraiture (influenced maybe by Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – which has captivated American audiences while being on show at the Frick Collection in New York City).

      I hope this clarifies the nuances and complexities of the art market. Thanks again for reading my blog. Do let me know if you have any further questions, I’d be delighted to answer them.

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