Masterpieces in New York



After the Christmas break the art market returns to serious business at the end of January with several events in Asia (the resumption of Contemporary Art sales in Hong Kong, Art Stage in Singapore, the India Art Fair in New Delhi, etc.) and a number of sales to gently awaken the Western market. These include two sales of Old Masters on 27 January in New York: drawings at Christie’s and the last of the Taubman sales at Sotheby’s, and two the following day (drawings again at Christie’s) and a prestige sale of Old Masters at Sotheby’s (28 November). Breaking with tradition, Christie’s has not programmed its prestigious Old Masters sale to coincide with that of its traditional rival.

After its very disappointing Old Masters sale this time last year, it looks like Christie’s has modified its strategy this year. On 28 January 2015 Christie’s posted its worst sales total in over 10 years ($9.1 million) with a destabilizing unsold rate of almost 60% (32 out of 54 works offered). With over-high estimates and works that were already known to collectors, the 2015 sale suffered from inadequate quality and over-optimism. Christie’s is therefore reorganising its programme this year in order to present a highly qualitative sale, even if it means mixing several artistic periods.
So that leaves Sotheby’s in the spotlight, with a Orazio GENTILESCHI portrait on January 27 and a mythological nude by Orazio GENTILESCHI on January 28.

Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Page

The catalogue for the last Taubman collection sale in New York on 27 January lists three portraits by Thomas Gainsborough: a portrait of Admiral Lord Graves (estimated $100,000 – 150,000), a portrait of Louis-René Ferdinand Quentin (estimated $250,000 – 350,000) and, above all, Blue Page (165.5 x 113 cm), the highlight of the sale estimated at $3 to 4 million. The sale of Blue Page represents a substantial challenge because Gainsborough’s excursions beyond the million threshold are not very frequent: twelve times in 30 years to be precise, including once in 1989 when Alfred Taubman bought the same Blue Page for $1.6 million. Between the late 1980s and today, the full-length portrait of the young page boy in blue attire would therefore have doubled in value (at least…). Sotheby’s justifies this increase by making a parallel between Blue Page and other Gainsborough masterpieces, including the famous Blue Boy at the San Marino Huntington Library in the United States. And, as they point out, experts long thought that Blue Page was a preparatory work for Blue Boy. However, it has been recently established that Blue Page was painted after Blue Boy. Apart from this new historical data, the attraction of the painting lies in its relative modernity, perfectly illustrating the English master’s energy, spontaneity and delicacy.
Nevertheless, Gainsborough’s market has always been a difficult one because his collectors are highly demanding and some portraits (although much smaller than Blue Page) have remained unsold even when offered with very attractive estimates of less than $50,000.
The artist’s auction record has stood at $10.5 million since 2011 (Christie’s London, 5 July 2011) for a full-length portrait of Mrs.William Villebois, a majestic work in terms of its size (more than two metres high), its psychological realism and the exquisite treatment of the subject’s attire.

The next day, Sotheby’s is hoping to generate a new auction record for Orazio Gentileschi at between $25-35 million for a superb Danae that has been on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the last two years. Gentileschi’s current record has stood at $7 million since December 1995 (The Finding of Moses, Sotheby’s London, 6 December 1995). The sale of his Danaë (a large format nude) comes just two months after a historical nude by Gustave COURBET fetched $15.2 million (La grande Femme nue couchée [1862] at Christie’s New York on 9 November 2015). That record added no less than $11 million to Courbet’s previous record of $3.7 million for Étretat: Les Falaises (Sotheby’s on 6 November 2013). La grande Femme nue couchée was probably the best Courbet work ever submitted to the market, and — since exception comes at a high price — Christie’s was hoping for even stronger bidding (its top estimate was $25 million). On 28 January 2016 we will see if Gentileschi’s Danaë reaches the price that was hoped Courbet’s painting.