Flemish and English old masters, French abstract art: prices soar!



New records for Bruegel the Younger and de Stael, new million-euro result for Pierre Soulages… sales in London and Paris confirm inflation on the market’s safe-bet classics.

In early December, Christie’s and Sotheby’s organised their prestigious London sales of Old Master paintings. Christie’s went first on 6 December, selling 72% of its lots (26 of the 36 presented) for nearly 20.5 million pounds. The sale was punctuated by several records including that of the great Renaissance Flemish artist Pieter II BRUEGHEL, known as Brueghel the Younger. His Battle between Carnival and Lent was the highlight of the sale, generating a quarter of the evening’s revenue: the winning bid amounted to £6.1m and signed a new record for the artist.
The Dutch painters Willem II VAN DE VELDE and Govaert FLINCK also reached new heights: the first at £5.25m for Dutch men-o’-war and other shipping in a calm, against a high estimate of £2.5m and the second for An old man at a casement, acquired for £2.05m, tripling its low estimate.

The following day, Sotheby’s sold 68% of its lots (26 out of 38) generating a total of £16.9m. The best results were bid for Johan Joseph ZOFFANY (The Garden at Hampton House, £6m), Jan Havicksz. STEEN (An Elegant Company in an Interior with Figures Playing Cards at a Table, £4.3m) and Virgil’s Tomb by Moonlight, £1.3m). Meanwhile, Bonham’s managed to sell a Portrait d’un gentilhomme by Diego VELASQUEZ for £2.6m in what was a far more confidential sale. This rare work (only five Velazquez masterpieces have gone to auction over the last 20 years) did not however dethrone a recent record generated by his Sainte Rufina at £7.5m (4 July 2007, Sotheby’s, London).

Meanwhile in Paris…
On the other side of the Channel in Paris, Artcurial, Sotheby’s and Christie’s were in the midst of their Modern and Contemporary art sales, and they experienced the liveliness of demand for paintings rooted in abstraction with new million-euro results for Nicolas de Staël and Pierre Soulages.
On December 6, Artcurial recorded a new record for an oil painting by Nicolas DE STAËL (1914-1955), Nu couché acquired by an American collector for €6.1 million.
In fifteen years of production, Nicolas De Stael, a French painter of Russian origin, painted a thousand pictures. On 16 March 1955, he committed suicide at the height of his career. The Reclining Nude dated from 1953 to 1954. It is therefore one of his last works painted at Ménerbes in Provence… Although his last creative years were intensive, one typically finds on the auction market still-lifes, seascapes and landscapes of the period. No De Stael nudes from this period had ever been offered at auction. So to some extent, it was not so surprising that the work demolished both an optimistic estimate of €3.5m and a recent record of €2.15m for a painting entitled Agrigente from 1954 at Sotheby’s Paris on 31 May 2011.

The next day, Pierre SOULAGES signed the record of the Sotheby’s sale in Paris. Estimated at €1m and commencing the bidding at €600,000, the large canvas (195×130 cm)- completed on 3 December 1956 – reached €1.35m … an excellent result which is not however a new record (his latest record was set in May 2011). Two other paintings by Soulages were also sold: Peinture 130 x 102 cm, 14 octobre 1980 was acquired for €210,000 while his Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 13 novembre 1969 fetched €700,000.

Pierre Soulages… half the price of Franz Kline
Two million euros: that was the amount that a majestic abstraction Peinture 130 x 162 cm (dated 1956) by Pierre Soulages fetched in the Paris branch of Sotheby’s on 21 May 2011. Judging by the estimated range and the artist’s previous record (Peinture,a 1959 work which had fetched €1.31m at Lajeunesse Perrin-Royer, Versailles on 16 December 2007), the auctioneer wasn’t expecting much more than €1m, and €1.5m at the best.
In the last decade, Pierre Soulages has enjoyed tremendous market enthusiasm and his price index rose 408% between January 1999 and January 2009. His first million-plus (euro) auction result occurred on 6 July 2006 for a 1959 canvas (162 x 130 cm) that tripled its estimate at Sotheby’s Paris (Sans titre, fetching €1.06m). Twenty years earlier, a similar work of the same size and same year was available for less than €60,000 (DEM 120,000 at Lempertz in Cologne). In 2007, for the second time, a historic work by Soulages sold beyond the one million-euro threshold; and then a third time in December 2008 (€1.31m at Lajeunesse Perrin-Royere in Versailles) and a fourth time at Sotheby’s in Paris (€1.3m).
The artist is slowly being accepted by the New York market. Over the last decade, his work has only generated six results above €100,000 in Manhattan. That is not much… American collectors preferring to confer their favour upon their compatriot Franz KLINE, also a master of black abstraction, and whose auction record is double that of the French artist (€4.4m for a painting entitled Crow Dancer completed in 1958 and sold by Christie’s NY on 11 May 2005).