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Old Masters keep their heads up as London emerges from Classic Week unscathed

David Teniers, the Younger, Le déjeuner au jambon, 1648.
David Teniers, the Younger, The Ham Dinner, 1648. Sold for £4.7 million, a world record price for the artist at auction  Credit: Christie's

The hectic summer season for the art market is drawing to a close. Focused on London, where the social and sporting calendar attracts international visitors to Ascot and Wimbledon, there are numerous art fairs and auctions jostling for attention.

At the end of June, it was the modern and contemporary art auctions that, as I reported last week, experienced a 24 per cent drop in turnover during the first six months of 2019 compared with 2018. Last week, it was the turn of the Old Masters, antiques and antiquities – what Christie’s now designates as Classic Week, as part of a new marketing strategy that emphasises the style and connoisseurship associated with buying the old, as opposed to the latest fashions.

Here, the decline was far less noticeable. Old Master paintings and drawings at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s brought in £97 million, only three per cent lower than last summer. This was in no small way assisted by Graham Kirkham, the furniture magnate, selling a group of five paintings at Sotheby’s that together made £26 million. Although all were guaranteed (ie, pre-sold to third parties), they still count as sales. 

In the event, four of them – by Thomas Gainsborough, Joachim Wtewael, Jusepe de Ribera and Jean-Étienne Liotard – attracted little bidding as the reserves had been set high, and presumably they sold to the guarantors. The fifth, though, a lively painting of The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalene by Johann Liss, the short-lived 17th century Baroque painter (c 1597-1630), brought more competition.

Johann Liss, The Temptation of Saint Mary Magdalene. Sold for a record £5.7 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  Credit: Sotheby’s

A fusion of the styles of Rubens and Caravaggio, the painting attracted bidding from Daniel Katz, the London dealer, but eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York within estimate for a record £5.7 million.

Did Kirkham profit from the sales? He paid record prices for all the paintings in the Nineties, and most of them set record prices again. Best return was on the Liss, which he bought in 1994 for £991,500.

In all, they had cost him around £8.5 million, so the average annual return was a modest five per cent a year. That isn’t bad though, considering that Old Masters is not the area for quick gains, unless you can spot a sleeper and upgrade it. 

Of the six 18th-century Italian view or vedute paintings by Bernardo Bellotto, Michele Marieschi and Antonio Joli that had been sent to Sotheby’s by another collector who had bought them 16 years ago, three failed to recoup their initial outlay.

That may have been because Christie’s had the best Venetian view of the week: Bellotto’s resplendent painting of the quay and the Doge’s Palace was pursued by Cesare Lampronti, the specialist dealer, but sold to another bidder and above estimate for £2.8 million.

Andrea Soldi, Portrait of a merchant of the Levant Company in Turkish dress, seated on a Turkish carpet. Sold for £611,250 Credit: Christie's

The most remarkable results at Christie’s came for pictures with either lashings of style or distinguished provenance. A portrait of a British merchant dressed in exotic Turkish apparel by Andrea Soldi, for instance, which had sold for $45,000 back in 1988, caught the eye of dealer Edmondo di Robilant (currently showing his more modern art in Victoria Beckham’s Mayfair store), who chased it five times over the estimate before it sold for £611,250 to a bidder on the phone.

But the star was a classic 17th-century Dutch tavern scene by David Teniers from a Rothschild collection (Christie’s didn’t say which Rothschild). No doubt aided by provenance, it sold for a quadruple-estimate record £4.7 million. 

It must have been gratifying for both auctioneers to see their rooms packed with interested spectators (though not the small crowd demonstrating outside Christie’s for the repatriation of a c 1333 BC head of Tutankhamen, which sold none the less and without further ado for £4.7 million).

These spectators, among them museum curators and collectors from all over America, Europe and Asia, had also come to London to view the art and antiques fairs at Masterpiece in Chelsea and Olympia in West Kensington, as well as the special exhibitions that make up London Art Week. 

Dealer Stephen Ongpin counted 600 visitors for the first London exhibition of drawings by Adolph von Menzel, the 19th-century artist. Meanwhile, Andrew Clayton-Payne, which is not normally open to the public, sold more than a dozen recently discovered drawings by Johan Zoffany.

At the Masterpiece fair, six- and seven-figure sales ranged from a 4th-century AD Roman mosaic to a jazzily coloured Bridget Riley painting made in 1990. Generally, then, it was a week where the Old Masters kept their heads up and London emerged unscathed.

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