Sunday, 9 October 2016

At the British Museum: French Portrait Drawings

Portrait of an old man; head and shoulders of a bearded old man turned slightly to r, looking to front, wearing a simple cap with curls of hair protruding beneath, full beard and moustache, wearing an open shirt Black and red chalk, with blue-grey wash
French Portrait Drawings: From Clouet to Courbet British Museum to 29 January, free

This exquisite exhibition shows the evolution of portrait drawing in France, but it's also about the development of the British Museum's collection. It shows some smart recent acquisitions, and some obscure drawings that deserve more attention.

The British Museum's collection of drawings is arguably the greatest in the world, but its backbone is a handful of old private collections whose idiosyncrasies persist. The Italian old masters are broad and deep, but other schools are more patchy. They have a wonderful group of Watteau drawings, but other French artists were collected inconsistently. A database search reveals just three drawings by the prolific draughtsman Jacques-Louis David, and their first Vouet was acquired just last year. Many fine drawings in this show have been acquired quite recently, including a superb Isabey (2007) and Labadye (2001). All the recent acquisitions were excellent choices. I was also surprised by how many superb drawings I'd never seen or heard of, like the wonderful image illustrated above, attributed to Pierre Biard II on the basis of the inscription. More information on the attribution can be found on the BM's catalogue entry.

Neil Jeffares complains of the lack of Louis XV drawings, and of great draughtsmen who are unrepresented. I do not recognise that problem. An exhibition of French portrait drawings shouldn't be a microcosm of the development of drawing in France. More balanced representation of French draughtsmanship would have meant some combination of a larger show, a more diffuse theme or less representation of recently acquired nineteenth century drawings. I thought the show varied and interesting, and its theme is coherent. It asks what makes a portrait drawing different from a figure study. One drawing is of hands, but it is clearly intended as a portrait. A Watteau drawing was used for a figure in one of his pictures at the Wallace Collection, but it is such a distinct character that it clearly qualifies as a portrait drawing. Some portrait drawings are made as cheaper versions of painted portraits, but others are more personal and intimate. I thought the drawing attributed to Perroneau weak, and there were four too many Carmontelles for my taste, but the overall quality and interest was outstanding.

In other words, there is more to this show than just an assemblage of stuff from the vaults, and that is why a catalogue would have been so welcome. I share Neil Jeffares's lament at its absence. Evidence from second hand bookshops is that cheap little catalogues used to be produced regularly for small museum shows, but today there are either grand glossy books or else nothing at all. A catalogue need not be a definitive scholarly account, but reproductions of the drawings with some background information would have been welcome. I surmise that the biggest barrier is bureaucratic rather than financial, and the internal approvals needed are now too onerous. Helpfully the wall text is available online.

The BM bureaucracy has treated Prints & Drawings brutally. It has become much less accessible since its opening hours were curtailed and walk-in visits banned. I went to see some German drawings when I visited the exhibition, and I have never seen the print room so quiet. For much of the time there were no other visitors, and only a couple of other people visited the morning I was there. It used to be possible to request drawings as you go along, but now everything must be ordered in advance, reducing flexibility and militating against serendipity. I'd booked a full day, but left at lunchtime as I didn't dare try to request anything else. It is an absolute scandal that such a great collection has become so inaccessible and is so little used. The sight of the study room filled with visitors ranging from wizened scholars classifying the Carracci to casual visitors wanting to see Dürer's Rhinoceros was heartwarming, and the contrast with the emptiness last week was just tragic. It's time to resurrect the old proposal to move the entire department to the National Gallery, whose collection it complements. The Prints & Drawings department would be better loved, it would add impetus to acquire drawings related to the NG's paintings, and it would encourage better integration of graphic art into NG exhibitions. It was absurd that their Veronese exhibition didn't include any drawings. The emptiness of the study room shows that something must be done differently.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Brian Sewell Sale

Image result for sewell hockney christie's kirton
A large part of Brian Sewell's private collection was sold at Christie's this week, and it has come in for quite a battering from envious (and often ignorant) critics. The New Statesman even asserts that he didn't own a Hockney. He did, and it's pictured above. Edward Lucie-Smith says it "looks like the drearier sort of fairly competent, totally conservative semi-amateur painting that might just about scrape into an R.A. Summer exhibition today". On the contrary, it's far too good for today's R.A. summer show. It's a beautiful and surprising picture with a marvelous sense of colour; you can't appreciate those subtle pinks in reproduction. It was well bought for just £32,500, which would barely cover the artist resale rights on one of his recent monstrosities.

The sale made over £3.7m. That should impress Lucie-Smith, who seems to think that you judge an art collection by its monetary appreciation, as if it's all about guessing future monied taste. I was more impressed by its personal quality. He wasn't curating a memorial to himself, or playing the market. This is a man who requested a pauper's burial for himself. He bought widely, and supported artists of his own generation like Craxton and Minton who remain cheap, but were often rather good. He had a particular affinity for Eliot Hodgkin's beautiful still lifes, which I adore too. These pictures were bought for Sewell's own enjoyment. They weren't meant to impress other critics, and not all of them impressed me. But there were many lovely 'minor' pictures that were really well chosen: a charming picture of an orange tree, a fabulous picture of a building destroyed in battle, and a striking twentieth century interior, maybe by Malcolm Drummond.
Image result for sewell mervyn peake christie's
He did have some remarkable masterpieces, too. The fabulous Daniele da Volterra drawing of Dido sold to a museum (the Met?) for £797k against an upper estimate of £150k. My personal favourite was this design by Peruzzi, which I thought cheap at £353k. Two Stomers were unsold. I confess that I didn't care for them. I find him the least satisfying of the Dutch Caravaggists, and a lot of his pictures have been on the market recently. But the superb oil sketch by Andrea Sacchi (above) sold for £233k against an upper estimate of £80k. I'd love it to have gone to the National Gallery.
Image result for sewell mervyn peake christie's
It was a long sale with quite disparate works, and there were bargains along the way. Some things might have done better in specialist sales. Perhaps this wonderful Mervyn Peake drawing (above) would have sold better in a literature sale. Less than five grand for such an emotive and beautiful drawing by an important writer and illustrator, created at a key moment in World War II seems a steal. But it was a joy to see Brian Sewell's things as a group, and get a new insight into this brilliant critic and connoisseur.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Auction previews: summer old masters at Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's


Take a moment to look at the image above. Better still, follow this link and zoom in on the Christie's website. It's not the sort of thing to open a blog post, or put on Instagram. It's not an immediately powerful picture, especially in this dirty and worn state. But it's a real highlight of the Christie's old master sale on Thursday. It's Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot by Donato Creti, a scarce and underrated artist. At first impression it compares unfavourably to Poussin; similar subject matter and composition, but without his scintillating orchestration of colours and dramatic integration of figures by rhyming gestures. Closer up, you see a beauty in the figures and groups that exceeds even Poussin, whose intellectualism could get the better of him. It's not a painting for our times. Its compelling beauty is readily recongnised when we take time to look, but the impact isn't immediate and there's not recognisable stylistic brand.

Good doesn't mean valuable, and just because I think it's under-appreciated doesn't mean it's under-estimated. I really do think it will sell above the enticing estimate of £250k-£350k, but I don't think it will take its rightful place at the pinnacle of the market. This summer's old master sales are especially strong, with some consummate masterpieces. But for me the real reward of viewing is finding hidden gems like this.

This week the picture at the pinnacle is Rubens's Lot and His Daughters , also at Christie's ('estimate on request', was £20m-£30m even before Brexit). It's a magnificent picture, one of the best I've seen in the London salerooms. Do read the excellent catalogue essay, though I was irritated by the bit at the end making it 'relevant' by reference to Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Picasso, which was a bit of a stretch. And what a perversion that the estimate wouldn't get you even a second-rate Francis Bacon!

It's unusual for a portrait where neither artist nor sitter is known to be included in the evening sale, but this (probably) Dutch picture is a worthy exception. Estimate of £100k-£150k is well below what a picture of this quality with a secure attribution would make. It's another picture that's harder to appreciate in reproduction, but it really shone at the viewing.

Christie's has the stronger sale this time, but Sotheby's has some fine things. I can get jaded by Dutch still lives, but there are two exceptional ones being sold this week. A large Jan Brueghel the Elder flower still life, recently restituted to Rothschild heirs, is an extraordinary masterpiece of a popular type of early flower still life, larger and better than most (est. £3m-£5m). Good to see in the context of the current small show at the National Gallery, and it surpasses most there. A still life by Pieter Claesz (above, £1.8m-£2.5m) is typical, but utterly brilliant. The play of light is acutely observed. Italian renaissance artists are credited as universal geniuses for their interest in science, whereas the Dutch are often seen as talented painters alone. The Dutch golden age had a more developed division of labour, but urban communities were still small and tightly knit. Surely there would be some crossover between scientists like Van Leeuwenhoek and artists like Claesz. This picture is a fascinating tour de force.

Do have a look at their Jan Steen, an infuriatingly inconsistent artist. This raucous scene is just what we want in a Steen. It's estimated at £120k-£180k, which is about right for a mediocre Steen, but I think this one is better than that. At one point a jug had been painted in to disguise the urinating boy in the foreground! Teutonic portraits are unfashionable unless by Cranach or Holbein, which is the only way I can explain an estimate of just £60k-£80k for this Beham Portrait of Ludwig X, Duke of Bavaria. I also like this cheap Coecke van Aelst, with some studio participation as usual, but beautifully preserved and a bargain at £60k-£80k. Finally this Niccolò di ser Sozzo Crucifixion is a new discovery, and I thought the best of the gold ground pictures being sold this week (£150k-£200k).

Christie's Old Master Drawings sale includes a stunningly beautiful Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Head of a Boy (above, £200k-£300k). But as always, there are many much more modestly estimated things of real quality. I liked this Sebald Beham Winged Putto (£18k-£25k) and Giulio Romano Roman officer with mounted musicians (£15k-£20k).


Sotheby's has a strong sale of old master drawings, as usual starting at modest prices.

I particularly like this tiny Veronese (above), which is cheaply estimated at £80k-£120k. Veronese's drawings have always been highly prized, his rapid sketches giving a window to his creativity. The combination of rapid compositional sketches and wash study of hands is particularly attractive in this one. Veronese's drawings have always been ardently collected, but the sale is headed by an artist much less well known as a great draughtsman. This outstanding Lely self-portrait compares with the best of his continental peers and deserves its £600k-£800k estimate. The Veronese is a working sketch whose beauty is accidental, whereas the Lely is a self-conscious manifesto of the artist's genius. Both drawings have rich provenances. The Lely has passed down directly to his descendants; this is the first time it's been sold. The Veronese was owned by Jonathan Richardson senior and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and is now being sold from the last part of the collection of the great connoisseur Paul Oppé, whose British drawings are now at the Tate.

The Oppé section also features a magnificent group of caricatures by Stefano della Bella estimated at around £10k each, and one of the finest Claude landscapes I've seen. Sotheby's also has an album of drawings after paintings in the nineteenth century collection of Dawson Turner, who owned the Bellini now in Birmingham. It's attractive in its own right, but also an important document in the history of collecting. I'd love it to go to a public collection, and it's surely affordable even in these cash-strapped times, at an estimated £7k-£10k.

A final choice is Fragonard's The Inspiration of the Artist. Fragonard was one of the greatest draughtsman, and prolific. His drawings turn up often, but this one is quite exceptional. The perfect rococo subject, and in perfect condition; many are sadly faded, but here you can appreciate the range of tones as he intended. Estimate of £100k-£150k is modest for this.
Sotheby's and Christie's both have decorative art sales on view alongside the paintings and drawings sales, and these Italian renaissance cassone at Sotheby's stood out. Once highly prized, many fakes were made and genuine examples are rare. These are particularly fine, and seem incredibly cheap at the estimated £120k-£180k.

Bonham's has some good things, including a fine Claude landscape. Most intriguing was this unattributed St Ambrose of high quality, but estimated at just £10k-£15k. A number of lots at Bonham's carry low estimates to entice bidders; I'm sure this will go much higher. 


Monday, 23 May 2016

Let her go

Picture: The Art Fund
The Art Fund has launched an appeal to buy this picture for £16 million for the National Maritime Museum. It might be the prime version of a famous picture of a famous queen, but there are two others. One is at the National Portrait Gallery, which is just seven miles from the National Maritime Museum. Its importance is 'iconic', as The Art Fund press release says, rather than artistic. And we already have this icon in London. It's too much money for a picture that's essentially a duplicate, and of meager artistic quality.

The sellers have timed the offer well. The old master market is in the doldrums, but early English portraits are selling astonishingly well. Them seem merely clumsy to me, but their mix of 'merrie England' naivety and Tudor bling appeals to some of today's rich. I don't blame the sellers for timing the market. But Britain's public collections tend to mistime acquisitions perfectly, competing with the mega-rich for the most expensive pictures of the day and ignoring unfashionable bargains. The Art Fund has always known that this picture was in a British private collection. But they never seem to think strategically; did they try to buy it previously? And which unfashionable pictures are they trying to buy cheaply today?

And is this really a £16m picture? Portraits of Henry VIII from Holbein's workshop recently sold for £821k and £965k. They're not prime versions, but they're artistically better than the Armada Portrait, and equally iconic. I can accept that the likely prime version of the Armada Portrait is more valuable than studio replicas of Holbein's Henry VIII, but twenty times more seems a stretch. That money could buy a Titian or Rembrandt. For less than half the price (£7.3m) we could have had the fantastic Le Brun portrait bought by the Met, which is a great picture from a school poorly represented in UK collections. With the change we could have bought portraits by Scipione Pulzone, Ludovico Carraci and Girolamo da Carpi. Or for £14m we could have bought a great Poussin, an incomparably better picture. None of these are big names, and they're not especially fashionable. But we should be buying pictures based on quality and importance rather than choosing pictures that lend themselves most easily to publicity campaigns. Art collecting is being driven by public relations, which generally means pictures with some patriotic story behind them, because The Art Fund's PR department only has that one script.

If private donors think the Armada Portrait is good value, and really want to keep this picture in Britain, I won't stand in their way. I'll even agree that it would be a nice acquisition for the National Maritime Museum. But it's not just private donors. The Art Fund is largely subsidised by the taxpayer, in that its members receive free or reduced admission to publicly funded museums and exhibitions. That's a large part of why most people join, and that money funneled to The Art Fund comes straight out of the pockets of public museums. It's effectively a way of moving money from general expenditure to acquisition spending, but at immense bureaucratic cost. And The Art Fund seems especially unskilled at identifying the best things to buy.

There's another big subsidy in that £6m in tax will be remitted. I'm delighted by a £6m subsidy for the arts. But this is an arbitrary £6m subsidy, available only to specific works that are already in the UK. Effectively the government is paying full face value for a gift token that can be used only for one work of art, instead of just giving the money directly so that museums can choose the pictures they want.

The Art Fund has recently called for a review of the system of export licenses. I call for the whole rotten process to be abolished. If a foreign buyer is willing to pay £16m for this, let them have it. And let our museums compete to buy pictures from abroad, rather than having to go after the latest picture that The Art Funds wants to 'save'.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Who will review the reviewers? Thoughts on Giorgione

In the Age of Giorgione Royal Academy London to 5 June

The word 'Age' is a warning sign in exhibition titles. It means 'we couldn't borrow the things we wanted, so we've blurred the edges a bit'. Blurring boundaries can be interesting and context is good, but it feels like they just gave up on this show when they couldn't get the big loans. They've stretched poor Giorgione to breaking point with mad attributions. The catalogue lacks conviction, just listing the views of other art historians next to the appalling grainy reproductions. And the display is filled out with a jumble of mostly early sixteenth century Venetian pictures of often questionable relevance.

It makes me yearn for Brian Sewell, who would have skewered it. 

Instead we have Laura Cumming in the Observer describing it as "something close to a miracle", and claiming that it includes a dozen Giorgiones. Two separate reviews in the Telegraph by Louisa Buck and Mark Hudson claim it includes seven out of 'ten or so' authentic Giorgiones. The New York Times's former art correspondent got in trouble for plagiarising Wikipedia. These critics don't even google. The FT is maddest of the lot, illustrating its review with one of the most implausible Giorgiones, claiming that the old dullard Cariani is the star of the show and describing the most mendacious curation as 'honest'. Even the smart reviewers have been too polite. A splendid, smart piece by Charles Hope casts a sceptical eye on the definition of this most enigmatic artist. Hope's essay is subtle; he isn't criticising connoisseurship, but implying preference for caution in face of uncertainty. I favour his epistemic stance, but he failed to give the show the kicking it so richly deserves.

Before I kick, I must urge you to see this show. There are some exceptional pictures here, and it does provide some valuable comparisons. It's worth travelling a long way just to see the Terris Portrait, top, which is one of the only secure Giorgiones on display. I've seen it at its home in San Diego, but it looks much better here, flanked by two Dürer portraits painted in Venice at the same time. It's a fantastic painting that's hard to appreciate in reproductions, with a monumental presence far disproportionate to its size. Confronting this picture in the first room really shows why Giorgione was so highly esteemed. 

I saw the Glasgow Christ and the Adulteress as more Titian-like than I'd previously appreciated; the current consensus for Titian now seems right to me. The wispy adulteress falling into the picture from the right looks especially Giorgionesque. But the dynamism, the gestures and the integration of figures is all Titian. It's worn and cut down, and even harder to appreciate on a tiny scale, but the composition is remarkably sophisticated. The catalogue describes it simply as diagonal, but it's more complex than that. There's nothing like it in Giorgione, who was more about mood than drama.

Another picture that I reassessed was the Cornbury Park Altarpiece by Bellini, which was one of my favourite pictures in my home town museum. Seeing it in a different context helped me appreciate better its weaknesses, and I absolutely disagree with the catalogue's assertion that, "the quality of the painting is so high that the contribution of the workshop, should it exist, is almost impossible to detect". On the contrary, different styles are readily recongnisable. The saints' heads are exceptionally Dürer-esque, the donor Memling-like and the Madonna and Child very typical of Bellini's workshop, and not of the highest quality. 

I like two Sebastianos that I'd never seen before, Birth of Adonis and Death of Adonis from La Spezia. The technique is unusual; they seem to have been painted quickly and broadly, which in this case seems not to be the result of bad restoration. The catalogue speculates that they may have been cassone panels, but they seem intended to be seen from below. Perhaps they once formed part of a frieze, hung high where that marvelous sky would have looked magnificent, but finely painted detail would be invisible. 

Consideration of condition must be at the heart of this show, and it's central to forming a view of Giorgione. A lot of the pictures are severely abraded, and some seem much repainted. Only a handful appear well-preserved, including a wonderful Lorenzo Lotto from the Louvre and a Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Saint John the Baptist only 'attributed' to Sebastiano del Piombo, but which seems quite right to me. The Venetian use of thin glazes renders them vulnerable to harsh cleaning, and maybe the soft contours appeared dirty to some early owners. But I wonder if there isn't also a selection bias here. The more badly they are scrubbed, the more they look like they might once have been by Giorgione. Some of these ghostly relics are now impossible to assess.

The connoisseurial potential of the show—trying to discern Giorgione's hand from others who painted in his style—is undermined by the sheer raving lunacy of the attributions. Giorgione is a controversial artist, and many pictures have been attributed to him over the years. But there are controversial pictures, and there are outright impossibilities. I'm not even convinced that all the pictures 'attributed to Giorgione' here are even Venetian, or of the right period. Two stood out as especially outrageous. 

A picture tentatively identified as David Between Saul and Jonathan is singled out for criticism in Charles Hope's essay. The attribution was originally made in a certificate bought and paid for by a previous owner. The modern equivalent of the 'certificate of authenticity' is the exhibition catalogue. It won't shift the view that this isn't by Giorgione, but inclusion at the RA lends it undeserved legitimacy. Maybe some one will buy it because they think it might be right, like the silly new 'Leonardos' that turn up from time to time, sometimes selling for high prices. It's evidently not Giorgione, and the prevarication of the catalogue entry makes it clear the curators don't think so either.

The second shocking misattribution is the Virgin and Child in a Landscape from the Hermitage, which is one of the only pictures given fully to Giorgione. It isn't. And I don't believe the curators think it is, either. It seems to have been substantially repainted at a later date, but there is nothing here to indicate it was ever by Giorgione. The Hermitage insisted that their Madonna Litta was given in full to Leonardo in the recent London exhibition, although few believe it is. I suspect this was another stipulation by the dogmatic anti-intellectuals there. But why on earth did the RA agree? The picture is trivial, and unnecessary to the show. The Hermitage gains, because they can cite another source seeming to endorse another of their extravagant claims. But the RA just looks meek and corrupt.

It's not the only picture whose inclusion in the show is perplexing. Cariani is a very different artist from Giorgione, and a rather repetitive painter. Yet there are six of them here. And some of the Sebastianos and Titians were oddly selected, some brought across continents when there are better examples five minutes down the road at the National Gallery. 

This is an obviously problematic show. I don't know the politics of the RA, but it seemed they themselves don't really believe in it. They have skimped on the catalogue, eschewed all commentary on the wall labels and avoided expression of opinion. I don't know where responsibility lies, whether with the powers-that-be at the RA or the curators who arranged this exhibition. But having seen the show, I am quite certain which critics deserve censure. 

 


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Why the old master market really is dead

The lackluster totals from the recent old master auctions in London prompted more observations about the parlous state of the old master market. I liked Scott Reyburn's account in the New York Times, but Bendor Grosvenor has issued a firm critique with useful data. But I'm still with Reyburn, and I think Bendor's evidence reinforces Reyburn's conclusion, if we put it in context.

The important question is what you're comparing against. The value of money itself changes, so you have to adjust for inflation. But over time economies tend to grow, so any sector simply keeping up with inflation isn't doing so well. Sectors wax and wane, of course. But if the auto industry is booming and Ford's sales are increasing in double digits, it's not enough for General Motors to say they're doing great because their sales are in line with the overall economy. Bendor's charts show old masters just about keeping up with inflation at a time when the potential market is booming because there are far more very rich people in the world, with far more disposable income. It's just that they're spending that income on modern and contemporary art, which is booming. That can't be explained away as a speculative bubble, because it's supported by strong market demand that's boosting all kinds of luxury products—except old master paintings.

It's not just that there are more rich people. Wealth increased significantly in the post-war boom, but there was a big lag before the art market took off. One reason for that is relatively high tax rates and relatively high returns to labour rather than capital. But that didn't change until the subsequent growth of the art market was already well underway. I think the other aspect is that returns on investment were strong as the economy recovered after the war. There was high demand for capital, and good long-term returns. Today that's not so true; returns on all asset classes are muted and  growth is sluggish. So it makes sense for the elite to divert resources towards consumption—which, again, is exactly what we've seen in the luxury good industry, and in every sector of the art market except old master paintings. Old masters really are the anomaly.

Historically the old master market performed much as you might expect based on the changing fortunes of the very rich. In the early twentieth century they were booming, as American millionaires entered the market for the first time. After the depression prices fell sharply. There have been plenty of strong trends, even if they even out over the very long term. Incidentally, even in the boom years of the early twentieth century dealers complained about the difficulty of obtaining good mark-ups on pictures bought at auction; Duveen liked to buy collections en bloc to avoid the anchor of publicised prices, and Wildenstein kept things in stock for decades before resale. Agnew used to sell stock bought at auction on very thin margins in the nineteenth century. And there are still plenty of dealers buying at auction and then selling retail in Mayfair or at Maastricht. I think the bigger story is that old master dealers are being squeezed in a declining market, not that their old business model has suddenly failed.

Finally, we can look more anecdotally at the market itself. Some parts do better than others; prices for Dutch pictures and Brueghels seem to have softened recently. Elizabethan portraits are doing better. French eighteenth century pictures are especially out of favour. But the overall impression is that really good mid-range pictures are selling consistently poorly if you think in terms of their relation to house prices, or to the incomes of the relatively affluent (top professionals and business leaders). Today a month's income for a barrister, or partner in a big accounting or consulting firm would buy a picture that would grace a museum. And there are more people earning those salaries than ever before. It's just that they're buying contemporary art.

A coda on data
Because each old master painting is unique, there's no reliable indicator equivalent to, say, the price of gold. Even the same picture re-sold may come with a different attribution, or following restoration that may have helped or hurt its value. Sales volume in the overall market is hard to find, because of coding and categorisation issues. The top auction houses re-position themselves from time to time, going into the mid-market and then pulling back. Supply is only slightly elastic. The 'three Ds' (death, divorce, death) produce a reliable stream of consignments from forced sellers, but rising prices don't automatically secure big increases in supply. But rising prices do tempt treasures into the market, so there's a degree of pro-cyclicality in raw sales data, as well as volatility because the market is so thin.

Bendor's data show sales increasing slightly above inflation, which in the context I've described is frankly dreadful. Sotheby's closed its Olympia saleroom and Phillips withdrew entirely from the old master market in that period. The data are difficult to obtain, because old master picture sales sometimes include drawings and sculptures (including a £29.7m Raphael), and old masters are sometimes sold in other sales (such as mixed single owner sales). The trend line is influenced by start date; I calculate Sotheby's results from 2002 to have been £153m, inflation-adjusted, which may have given a different slant to the trend. But the only element I really object to is comparing performance with the FTSE without reinvesting dividends, which is meaningless (do we assume the dividends were just eaten?). I don't think art should be treated as an investment class, for the reasons Bendor himself sets out. And for what it's worth, I don't think it's right to call the contemporary market a 'speculative bubble', though economic shifts could easily see significant price falls.

Artprice has an alternative index showing old master prices declining, but their index shows far more volatility than I perceive in the actual market, so take their data with a pinch of salt.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Old Master Results


maitre_dreux-bude_arrestation-2.jpg
Picture: Sotheby's
London's auctioneers put on a fine show last week: plenty of good pictures with mostly quite reasonable estimates. But results were disappointing. High levels unsold (about half the Christie's evening auction), and no really spectacular prices. There seemed to be less trade buying than usual, and dealers declining to add to their stock is a bad sign. The day sales did a little better, but prices are still astoundingly low compared to contemporary art, and unprecedented relative to the immense resources of the wealthy global elite. The large number of unsold pictures indicates that prices are 'sticky downwards', as economists say: sellers are reluctant to crystallise losses relative to their expectations, so they decline to sell. It implies market weakness, but the inherent volatility of the art market makes the signal hard to read. We must also be cautious of drawing conclusions too hastily from a small sample of lots sold in a single week, although it really only confirms long-standing trends.

The high-end market is sewn up by Christie's and Sotheby's, and usually reported as a messianic struggle between them. But reporters are measuring the wrong thing when they compare value of sales, a metric chosen because it's easily available and easily understood rather than because it's actually important or meaningful. If you're selling pictures, you want to know which auctioneer will get the higher price, and it's not clear to me that either has a clear edge. Knowing how much they've sold for other people doesn't answer that question. If you're a shareholder, you want to know about risk-adjusted return. Sale volume doesn't help that analysis: you need to know the commission charged and guarantees granted. And mere observers like me would be happy if either of them could just make navigating their websites easier than bitcoin mining.

On the face of it Christie's sale was a disaster. But it really comes down to a handful of pictures. Their top lot, Hoffmann's Hare didn't sell, despite being one of the best things offered in London in recent years. Maybe private equity magnates think hanging a fluffy bunny on their wall would convey the wrong message. When I first saw it I thought the estimate would be £3m-£5m, but it was actually pitched at a slightly more aggressive £4m-£6m. Given its appeal, I didn't think that unreasonable, and it was quite plausible that a couple of interested collectors could have pushed it well beyond that. A small Claude drawing sold recently for just shy of the Hoffmann low estimate, after all. Sotheby's top lot, a Constable that didn't inspire me, sold to a single bidder at its reserve. If that buyer had gone for the Hoffmann at Christie's, it would have looked very different.

We don't know the economics of either auction, particularly how much commission they earned (assume negative seller's commission). The other expensive lot at Christie's was withdrawn; surprisingly, it was consigned by Christie's itself, having taken ownership when it failed to meet its guaranteed price a few years ago. It was sold privately, I'm told above its high estimate. That would also have boosted their total significantly. It ought also to boost profits too, as it would have been taken to inventory at the lower of estimated realisable value and purchase price. I'd say a prudent accounting treatment would be to discount by at least 20%, causing a big loss then but a decent profit now.

A few other observations:




  • Vive la France! The Louvre made a great purchase of the Master of the Dreux Budé Triptych's Arrest of Christ for £965k (pictured above). It's a good and unusual picture that would complement any of the great collections of northern renaissance painting. Well done them for getting it directly from auction. Another fine French museum acquisition was Cabanal's Portrait of an Artist from the Winter Collection sale, for just £6,250. There are plenty of opportunities for good but cheap pictures that museums could be buying, but it's rare for them to do so. Do watch La Tribune de l'Art for the most thorough coverage of museum acquisitions, including the Cabanal.
  • Things I got right: of the pictures I thought looked cheap, the Moillon doubled estimate, Flinck, MignonBachiacca and Testa all exceeded estimate (even before premium). Two early Italian pictures I thought seemed cheap sold for approximately double and triple their respective estimates.  
  • The pictures I thought expensive mostly did poorly, which wasn't my expectation. The Constable scraped its reserve with one bid, view pictures and the Bosschaert still life did poorly, and the Henry VIII sold below low estimate. Tudor portraits have been madly expensive recently; historically interesting, but artistically dull. 
  • Things I got wrong: the Cariani was a bargain at its low estimate (£100k, £125k with premium), though dark pictures of Christ with the Cross are not the most 'commercial'. Baciccio made its high estimate (£35k with premium), but I still say it was cheap at that price. Mr Market didn't share my fondness for the early Cologne picture that made just £50k. I was surprised the Verspronck didn't sell; I thought it might exceed the estimate. His portraits are not rare, but this was a good one (though not in perfect condition). The Standard Bearer by Verspronck made $1.5m in 1998, and is now in the National Gallery, Washington. This one wasn't nearly as spectacularly swashbuckling, but similar order of quality.
  • So I was more right than wrong. I'm a genius, right? Well, alas no. Estimates aren't really predictions. Some pictures are estimated low to encourage interest (and tease us). Some are estimated 'robustly' to signal their importance (e.g. Hoffmann). And others are estimated high because the seller has demanded a high reserve. The auction house has marginal costs that aren't fully recovered from cataloguing fees, and they don't want too many unsold lots. But against that, they want to ensure their sales have a reasonable balance and low marginal costs make it worthwhile to take a punt if there's even a small chance of selling. There might also be opportunities for commission from private sale after the auction, and including some lots with high reserves might facilitate other consignments from the same seller. Sometimes unsold lots are no surprise to anyone, even the auctioneers. But that doesn't mean they're acting irrationally.