Apollo Magazine

Optimism for the Old Masters

Plus: London Art Week | Helena Newman to chair Sotheby’s Europe | Bowie Collection comes to auction | Timothy Taylor Goes Stateside

Rubens' Lot and His Daughters goes under the hammer at Christie's London on 7 July. Image courtesy Christie's

Apollo’s regular round-up of art market headlines and comment.  

Optimism for the Old Masters | It may be a cliché, but in times of uncertainty, the solid and traditional suddenly becomes more appealing. So it seemed in the wake of the EU referendum, with reassuringly solid Old Master painting sales in London. These benefitted from a smattering of the scarce, fresh-to-market gems that this sector of the market relies upon.

Sotheby’s 6 July Evening Sale started on a high, as London dealer Johnny van Haeften bid an artist record price for Marten van Cleve the Elder’s 16th-century scene of an outdoor wedding dance, a grubby but spirited work that he thinks will ‘clean like a dream’ (the work fetched £1.1 million, including buyer’s premium). ‘When people start clapping it generally means they think you paid far too much!’ said van Haeften, ‘But actually I think people were just relieved that the first lot after Brexit did well – it set the tone for the week.’ In the run-up to the sale, there had been murmurings that the painting could be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, by whom only 36 works are known, all in museums. Van Haeften says not, however: ‘It’s an exceptionally good van Cleve and as close to Pieter Bruegel the Elder as you could get, but it’s not a Bruegel.’

Of course, the star of the week was Peter Paul Rubens’ magnificent Lot and his Daughters, sold at Christie’s on 7 July for £44.9 million. This is the second-highest price ever achieved for an Old Master at auction, behind the £49.5 million made for the same artist’s Massacre of the Innocents at Sotheby’s in 2002. Trade rumour has it that the work had previously hung in the modest suburban London home of a woman who had inherited it, and who decided to sell after an insurance valuation last year revealed its value.

The dealer Bob Haboldt, an underbidder on the painting, enlivened the sale with his repartee with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen. At one point Haboldt asked ‘How much longer is this going to go on for?’,  to which Pylkkanen countered ‘As long as you keep bidding sir’. Speaking after the sale, Haboldt – who is known for his dry humour – claimed that although various foundations had been interested, they they could only stretch to the low £20 millions, and that thereafter he was bidding ‘for stock’ while on the phone to ‘a friend for moral support’. It was, in fact, a client. ‘I had £25 million in mind, and after that I started to get a little uncomfortable’, he said, describing the final price as ‘very strong, but realistic’.

The buyer, a phone bidder on a line manned by Francis Outred, also bought a complete set of The Four Seasons by Pieter Brueghel the Younger for £6.5 million. Outred is a post-war and contemporary art specialist, which suggests this was a buyer expanding from that field.

Other artist auction records during the week included a rakish self-portrait by English artist William Dobson at Bonhams (£1.1 million) and Jean-Étienne Liotard’s A Dutch Girl at Breakfast, Sotheby’s top lot at £4.4 million. The week was a boon to an oft-knocked market. As van Haeften says, ‘We are the tortoise to contemporary art’s hare. We’ll get to the finish, albeit slowly, but the hare could fall flat on its face.’

London Art Week | Participants in London Art Week (1–9 July) also did solid trade, although with no results sheets, evaluation of such events tends to be more of an art than a science. Colnaghi announced sales including A philosopher holding a mirror by Jusepe de Ribera (asking price in the region of £1.25m) and two 17th-century sculptures by Pedro de Mena, sold to a private collector who is placing them on long-term loan to a European museum (asking price in the region of €500,000 each).

Infant Christ , Pedro de Mena (1628–1688). Colnaghi at London Art Week

In the fourth year of this annual event, many of the 46 participating dealers showed more inventiveness than in previous years, with themed shows and objects in focus to draw in visitors. A case in point was the group of watercolours, preparatory drawings and figure studies by Johann Martin von Rohden and his Nazarene circle, presented by the Rome-based Galleria Carlo Virgilio & C. (exhibiting at Harris Lindsay). The 19th-century German artist was no figure painter, and this display demonstrated how he copied his friends’ studies of people into his landscape compositions. Von Rohden sold all his drawings to one Norwegian collector bar this one group, perhaps, thinks the gallery’s Stefano Grandesso, to preserve his guilty secret. The group sold for around €200,000 to an American collector.

Helena Newman to chair Sotheby’s Europe | Helena Newman’s appointment as Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe after 28 years at the auction house is a refreshing recognition of employee loyalty at a time when it is unusual to stay with one company for a long period. It comes at a time when much attention has been paid to high-profile departures at Sotheby’s, not least Henry Wyndham and Melanie Clore who now launch a  . Newman says it ‘feels a natural progression’, given her involvement in wider business strategy in her current role as  Co-Head, Worldwide Impressionist & Modern Art.

Newman started at Sotheby’s in 1988. ‘London was a very different city,’ she says ‘it has expanded massively in terms of international buyers and its global reach’. Indeed, globalisation has been the biggest change: ‘In the past, one region would dominate the market at any one time, Japan, America or Russia for instance. But now it’s always a global spread.’ Her challenge now is anticipating collecting tastes: ‘What we sell, how we sell it and who to. That could be through themed or curated sales or finding different, innovative ways to present art.’

Bowie Collection comes to auction | David Bowie’s collection will be sold in three sales at Sotheby’s in November. Celebrity collections are often led by ample funds rather than knowledge or passion, but not so that of Bowie, who wrote for and sat on the editorial board of Modern Painters, bid in person at auction and put his name to the frequent loans he made to institutional exhibitions.

David Bowie, photographed by Gavin Evans. Copyright Gavin Evans

‘He could have bought anything but he chose British art’ says Sotheby’s Simon Hucker. ‘He was particularly interested in how British artists took international art movements, such as Surrealism or Expressionism, and made them their own, gave them a distinctly British twist.’ Modern and Contemporary British art dominates the collection, with works by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Frank Auerbach and Damien Hirst alongside lesser-known names such as John Virtue. But Bowie’s outlook was international, so Marcel Duchamp and Jean-Michel Basquiat feature too, alongside surrealist pieces, contemporary African art, and 20th-century Italian design. A selection of 30 highlights will go on view at Sotheby’s London from 20 July–9 August before touring to Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong.

Timothy Taylor’s new gallery in New York

Timothy Taylor Goes Stateside | London gallerist Tim Taylor will open a New York gallery this autumn, dubbed 16 x 34 – after the dimensions of the new space in a Chelsea townhouse. Taylor says the gallery ‘will capture the spirit of the London programme, but apply that vision to the hub of the New York art scene. I wanted a unique space that would allow us to offer something different whilst being in close dialogue with the neighbourhood.’ But Taylor is also looking east. The gallery recently announced UK representation of its first Chinese artist, Ding Yi, and will exhibit at the West Bund Art & Design Fair in Shanghai, from 9–13 November.

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