Old masters – War of the titans



The Old Masters art market has two distinct levels: on the one hand there are hundreds of lesser-known artists whose works can often be acquired for 3-figure dollar prices, and on the other, there are the titans of art history whose most sought-after masterpieces generate sums that easily reach into 8-figures. However, these major works are increasingly rare on the market, and the big auctioneers have to search high and low to find them. At their July Old Masters sales in London this year, Christie’s and Sotheby’s managed to embellish their catalogues with several exceptional works. The bidding for these big-name (and nowadays very rare) masterpieces, which often represent milestones in art history, was very strong indeed.

The best results
Of the best results at the London sales (5 and 6 July 2011), Christie’s posted six above a million pounds: £20m for Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainer, jockey and stable lad by George STUBBS, £2.8m for a recto-verso drawing entitled A male nude, seen from behind/Studies of male nudes by MICHELANGELO, £1.35m for Dutch frigates exchanging salutes in a calm, with yachts by Simon Jacobsz DE VLIEGER, £1.15m for The Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints by Taddeo GADDI, £1.5m for Portrait of Frances Howard by Marcus II GERARDS, and a new record of £5.8m for Thomas GAINSBOROUGH’s Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois. A large full-length portrait of a man by the same artist, estimated £3.5m – £5m, was bought in.
Sotheby’s only generated three million-plus results: a new record at £23.8m for Francesco GUARDI’s Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North, from the Fondamenta del Carbon, £3.2m for Antonio Allegri CORREGGIO’s Madonna and child with the infant Saint John the Baptiste, and £2.4m for Hans Leonhard SCHÄUFELEIN’s The Dormition of the virgin.

The formidable rise of George Stubbs
In 2010, the English animal painter George Stubbs had already made auction headlines with a painting of five horses resting in a field, Brood Mares and Foals, which fetched £9m ($14.18m), the third best auction score for an English artist in 2010 (Sotheby’s, 8 December 2010). Indeed that result was also a new record for Stubbs who had never before sold above £3m.
Six months later, the extraordinary result for Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainer, jockey and stable lad made his previous record look cheap at the price. On 5 July last at Christie’s, the Gimcrack painting – representing one of the most admired horses of the 18th century (28 wins in 36 races) in complex pictorial construction and bathed in an unreal light – doubled the previous record with a hammer price of £20m ($32.15m).
With that result, Stubbs became the third most expensive Old Master behind Peter Paul RUBENS (£45m for The Massacre of the Innocents at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002) and RAPHAEL (£26m for Head of a muse at Christie’s on 8 December 2009)!

Records set to be beaten…
The winning bid for the work by George Stubbs represented close to half the total sales revenue generated by Christie’s for its cession Old Master & Early British Paintings on 5 July 2011 (£43.5m from 42 lots).
The following day, the equivalent sale at Sotheby’s did not generate such a satisfactory overall result despite having approximately 30 more lots in its catalogue (£41.1m against an estimated range of £31.11m and £48.12m).
The star lot presented at Sotheby’s was an extremely rare work by Francesco Guardi that beat the just hammered record by George Stubbs. The monumental Venetian cityscape entitled Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North, from the Fondamenta del Carbon has exceptional provenance that was elaborately detailed in the 32 pages devoted to the work in the sales catalogue and which substantially contributed to the pre-sale estimated price range of £15m to £25m. The final result confirmed the expectations of the most optimistic and gave Guardi the position of third most expensive Old Master that George Stubbs had won the previous day. Lot no. 73, the last in the sale, Guardi’s cityscape fetched £23.8m breaking a previous record that had stood unbeaten since 1989 (Vue de la Giudecca et du Zattere à Venise in Venice, £8.9m, Sotheby’s).