Apollo Magazine

The Highs and Lows of London’s Old Master Week

Constable's 'The Lock' was the standout lot at Sotheby's this week, while a number of major works at Christie's failed to sell

John Constable, The Lock. Photo: Sotheby's

John Constable’s The Lock was (as expected) the standout lot of London’s Old Master Week, a pre-Christmas institution with a festive end-of-term feel.

Much publicity had surrounded the sale of the quintessentially British painting, a ‘Six Footer’ remake that Constable completed after his initial attempt at the composition was shown at the Royal Academy in 1824. At Sotheby’s £22.6m evening sale of Old Master and British Paintings on 9 December, it sold on the phone to a European collector, the sole bidder, on the lower estimate of £8–12m – £9.1m with premium.

A small oil on oak panel by Jan Gossaert of the Virgin and Child made a record for the artist at £4.6m, again selling to a European collector, while another miniature gem of a painting, The Betrayal and Arrest of Christ by the Master of the Dreux Budé Triptych, is now headed to the Louvre, purchased for £965,000.

A charity supporting Syrian refugees in Greece will benefit from the sale of an unusual painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, donated to them by a supporter. Something of an unknown quantity, with some condition issues, the painting was estimated conservatively at £100,000–150,000 but thanks to strong interest, made £665,000.

Old Master sales rarely achieve high selling rates. Sotheby’s sold 29 of 44 lots (66%) while Christie’s evening sale the night before felt slower: it totalled only £6.45m, but with a similar 26 of the 45 lots sold (58%).

The Bird Trap, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Photo: Christie’s

Christie’s bottom line was punctured by some big failures on the night, a handful of high value works exposed at sales such as this. The auction was topped by The Birdtrap by Pieter Brueghel the Younger: one of numerous versions of this archetypal Netherlandish composition, it sold on low estimate for £1.2m.

The sale’s great hope was Hans Hoffmann’s watercolour on vellum of A hare among plants (1582), one of several versions Hoffmann made on the subject inspired by Dürer’s Hare of 1502. Bidding reached £3.9m (against an estimate of £4–6m) but this was not enough to meet the reserve, so the work was bought in.

In another example of the rise of the private sale, what would probably have been the top lot never made it to the public auction. At a sombre post-sale press conference, Christie’s Henry Pettifer and James Bruce-Gardyne revealed that Hans Memling’s The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child had sold privately before the sale for an undisclosed price ‘above the high estimate’ of £2.5–3.5m.

Had the Memling sold on the night, so contributing to the total, and had the Hoffmann had a less ambitious reserve, this sale would have read quite differently.

Very little discernible trade buying took place on either night, though the Old Master dealing fraternity were out in force to watch. However, Sotheby’s had over 6,000 people visit the view of their sale and 46% of bidders were new to the Old Master field – proof that there is life in the old dog yet. It’s finding the right works that’s the problem.

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