When it comes to assessing the outcome of significant auctions of Post-War and Contemporary, or Modern and Impressionist art, a recurring criteria seems be how one house squared up against its opponent: did the results surpass or fall to its rival? With the Old Masters, though, there's a certain tendency to negate this competitiveness; rather, discussions are focused on what the combined results tell us about the state of the market. This in turn leads to a dullness surrounding the Old Masters: if the sector wants to drum up the attention it so desperately desires, why not add a little drama? We can do this ourselves by conducting a toe-to-toe analysis to see which auction house came on top in the battle of the Summer Old Master Evening Sales. Ding Ding!
Prelims: Expectations and the Offerings
Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their summer Old Master Evening sales in London on July 4th and July 5th, respectively. Hot on the heels of strong figures from previous auctions, and each equipped with an arsenal of top-end consignments of artworks by quintessential Old Masters like John Constable, Anthony van Dyck, Turner, Brueghel, and more, expectations were high across the board.
The two houses also offered a plethora of works by lesser-known artists, including those in the German, Dutch, Flemish, and Netherlandish Schools, which can often be counted upon to pick up the financial slack if major masterpieces failed to sell.
Round 1: Sell Through Rate
Sotheby’s July 4th sale featured 66 lots, with 51 finding buyers, leading to a ‘sell through rate’ (the number of lots sold against the amount of lots offered) of 77%. The following evening, Christie’s auctioned 61 lots, 45 of which sold, leading to a good, yet not good enough, sell through rate of 74%
Winner: Sotheby’s (1-0)
Round 2: Sale Outcome
The 51 selling lots at Sotheby’s realized a total of $56 million with fees* against a pre-sale prediction of $44-$63 million.
The 45 selling lots at Christie’s realized a total of $41 million with fees, just barely within its $40-$64 million estimate.
*with fees means that the figure takes into account 'the buyer's premium', the amount the winning bidder pays on top of the hammer price. The buyer's premium typically adds an additional 20-25%.
Winner: Sotheby’s (2-0)
Round 3: Sale by Value Rate
Both houses had stunningly high sale by value rates; or, the total value achieved/overall estimated value of sale. At Christie’s, only 5 lots fell at or below their pre-sale estimates, whereas only 3 fell at or below their estimates at Sotheby’s.
We'll declare this round a draw for two reasons: first, to give Christie's an edge, and second, because sale by value rates aren't a precise science, but rather an internal measure for auction houses so they can fine tune their estimate strategies going forward.
Round 4: Show Me the Millions
An Old Master crossing the million dollar mark is akin to a Contemporary artwork crossing the $10 million threshold. Both houses had several lots that passed the coveted mark. 8 lots at Christie’s sold for over a million, while 14 hit the milestone at Sotheby’s, including Peter Paul Rubens’ Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman, which fetched over $7 million- thanks to a little help from Victoria Beckham- nearly twice its low estimate.
Sotheby’s feat is even more impressive considering the sale had a slightly lower average lot value at $664,000-$955,000 compared to Christie’s $664,000-$1,062,000.
Winner: Sotheby’s (3-1-0)
Round 5: Top Selling Lots, Prediction v. Outcome
At Sotheby’s, the two top selling lots were those that had been predicted to be: lots 17 and 21 were tied in prominence of artist and in sale expectation. Lot 17 was the aforementioned Rubens portrait, where it realized over $7 million against its rough estimate of $3.9-$5.3 million. Lot 21 was an oil scene of Walton Bridges by Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of Britain’s most acclaimed artists. The Turner sold for $4.4 million, comfortably within its $3.9-$6.6 million estimate.
Over at Christie’s, a Rubens with the sale’s second highest estimate failed to find a buyer altogether, so that’s a big zero against its projected $3.9-$6.6 million price tag. Not great! The work with the greatest pre-sale expectations, however, surpassed it’s $4.6-$6.6 million estimate by fetching $6.7 million. The lot in question is Ludovico Carracci’s Portrait of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni in Armour:
Following closely behind was perhaps the biggest shocker between the two houses: the nearly $7 million paid for a painting of the Holy Family by an Early Netherlandish minor master: Gerard David. This is even more surprising considering that lesser known masters from the same geographic region seemed to struggle at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Additional points awarded to Christie's for this unexpected turn of events.
Winner: Christie’s by Decision (1-1-3)
Final: The ‘Oops’ Round
At Christie’s, several works by major Old Master artists, two of which were estimated between $2.6 and $5.2 million, went unsold. These include Anthony van Dyck, Zanobi Strozzi, John Constable and Canaletto.
Though many of the passed lots at Sotheby’s were by minor masters, the house also weathered its fair share of embarrassment, with works by famed artists like the Brueghels, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, and van Dyck going unsold.
Winner: Sotheby's by Knockout
All in all, Christie’s bottom line was dented by those top-billed flops, which couldn’t be rescued by the sale of lesser known master works. The auction just barely scraped by the low end of its projected outcome, so much so that it may as well have fallen below it. In the end, it’s the numbers that matter most, and Christie’s simply couldn't match those put up by Sotheby’s.