Arts & Culture:
The catalog for Sotheby's 19th century sale in New York arrived in the gallery and I wondered if something had gone wrong...it was so thin. No, this was not a mistake, there were only 116 lots in the major 19th century sale -- could it be that they were finally listening? Produce high quality sales with limited numbers of paintings and the market should remain strong. Well they did get the limited number correct, but after viewing the sale, the overall offerings were less than stellar. Now here is my main issue -- one of the salerooms closed its 19th century department and this gave the other an opportunity to put together a sale filled with Filet Mignon, but they fell short. While the sale did have a few choice cuts of beef, there was plenty of ground round and few fast food burgers mixed in -- you know, the ones that taste so good, but are really bad for you!
To the untrained eye the works probably looked fairly nice, but a number had condition issues (overcleaned/skinned, flattened during the lining process, etc.), others were recently up for sale and there were a large number of Orientalist works -- 36 in all, or about 31 percent of the sale; and we all know how these works have fared recently. In addition there were 21 pieces of sculpture among the 116 lots offered (about 18 percent of the sale). Both of these percentages were far too high...more classic 19th century paintings please! On top of that there was one late Bouguereau -- nice subject, but a little soft around the edges; three by Seignac that were all late and very thin; a large Elsley that had been steamrollered during the lining process; two Corots that left a lot to be desired -- one that was overcleaned and another that was far too dark; and assorted other works that should have never made the cut for an "important" 19th century sale. Remember, just because a painting was done by a great artist does not mean that particular work is great!
Of course there were a few very nice, or just nice, quality paintings; these included a fabulous Gérôme and wonderful Lewis, a monumental Breton, a gem of a Boldini, a beautiful Kaufmann (punchy estimate), and nice works by Soulacroix, Godward and Deutsch.
Well, Friday arrived and what I expected to happen did materialize. The sale started off with a whimper; lots 1 through 7 were classic 19th century paintings but three of them had recently been on the market and their heavy estimates were additional baggage -- only three of the seven sold (a foreshadowing of things to come). Lots 8 through 43 comprised the major section of Orientalist paintings and the group started off with one of the best works -- Gérôme's A Bashi-Bazouk and His Dog (14 x 10 inches) -- which sold for a premium inclusive $794,500 (est. $600-$800,000) and a few lots later J.F. Lewis' The Kibab Shop, Scutari, Asia Minor (est. $1.5-$2 million) appeared and became the star of the sale when it sold for $3.44 million; it was the only painting in the sale to break the million dollar mark. There was also 14 Orientalist sculptures in this section (far too many for a sale of this size) and only three of those found new homes. In total, only 12 works from this group sold!
The Orientalist paintings were followed by the Neo-Classical artists and here again only the better works found buyers; these included two nice Godwards, one selling for $674,000 (est. $500-$700,000) while the other brought $578,500 (est. $400-$600,000); and a nice Waterhouse, Miranda -- The Tempest, that sold for $746,500 (est. $600-$800,000). On the flip side, three poor quality works by Seignac were offered and only one found a taker; that was a gift to the seller.
Some of the other highlights included a nice Soulacroix, Resting, that was estimated at $30-$40,000 and brought $74,500; Isidor Kaufmann's Portrait of a Boy (est. $400-$600,000) that made $482,500; Beraud's Le Pont Neuf (est. $400-$600,000) that sold for $566,500 and Breton's The Washerwomen of the Breton Coast, a monumental work that was estimated at $400-$600,000 and sold to a museum for $434,500.
And while I am at it, here are a few additional lowlights (some of which sold): Voirin's A Winter's Day, whose sky was very thin, made $40,625 (est. $30-$40,000); the steamrolled Elsley, Friend or Foe?, found a taker at $242,500 (est. $300-$500,000); both Corot paintings were sold -- a real surprise to me; a loose and sloppy Beraud titled Le Boulevard St. Denis, Paris happily did not find a buyer; and Bouguereau's late period (1899) Les deux soeurs suffered the same fate due to its very ambitious estimate of $1.5-$1.8 million.
Overall, I think you can see that buyers are being very selective and if the salerooms do not get with the program, offering great quality works that are in good condition in their "important" sales, we are probably going to see more huge buy-in rates which might lead to more department closings. Here is my advice -- if you do not have enough paintings to create a great important sale then don't have one!
In case you are wondering about the final numbers, here they are: of the 116 works offered only 49 found buyers for a sell through rate of 42% (58% BI rate) and a total take of $10.8 million (they were expecting in excess of $14 million) -- and it is very important to note that the expected number does not include the buyer's premium (commissions paid to the auction room) while the $10.8 million figure does.
Howard L. Rehs
Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York