Old Master’s sales : Raphaël vs Wu Bin



After two days of prestigious Old Master’s sales in London, Christie’s posted a substantially higher revenue total than its rival Sotheby’s with $99.4m (vs. $20.7m) and four new historic records, including one for Raphaël that outclassed the record set by the Chinese artist Wu Bin.

Christie’s total on 8 December 2009 was better than anticipated and represented the highest figure ever generated from an old masters sale. In addition, the sale set 3 new world records: the highest price ever paid for an old masters drawing with RAPHAEL’s Head of a muse fetching £26m (also the 2nd highest price for an old master painting or drawing ever sold at auction), a new price record for a REMBRANDT VAN RIJN painting (Portrait of a man with arms akimbo sold within its estimated price range at £18m), and a new record for Domenico ZAMPIERI whose Saint John the Evangelist fetched £8.2m ($13.4 m).
However, the two highlights of the Sotheby’s sale the following day were not quite as successful as was hoped. Although Anthonius VAN DYCK’s self-portrait doubled its estimate generating a new record for the artist at £8.3m, Peter Paul RUBENSPortrait of a Young Woman, half-length, holding a Chain, was bought in against a low estimate of £4m. Remember that Rubens’ Massacre des innocents generated the old masters all-time record when it fetched the equivalent of $69.7m on 10 July 2002 at Sotheby’s.

It is clear from the prices paid for the Raphaël and Van Dyck works that rarety is a strong lever on prices, particularly when auctioneers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain top quality pieces. The 42% de lots bought in at Sotheby’s (vs. 35% at Christie’s) supports this observation. In order to swell its old masters catalogue this year, Christie’s actually included works of art from the 19th century. But while the supply of European art seems to be drying up, the Chinese masters are gaining ever more ground.

TOP 10 Hammer Price : Old Master’s Drawing

Old master drawings: Chinese art on the ascent

The sweet face of Raphaël’s muse may have set a new record for the entire old masters drawing segment at £26m ; but just two weeks before this historic result, the segment’s record was held by a Chinese artist, WU Bin, a landscape specialist who lived during the Ming dynasty. Until October 2008, Europe was considered the global hub of old art and the birthplace of the world’s most expensive old masters. However, since then this segment of the art market has undergone a profound transformation … On 8 October 2008 a Chinese drawing found its way into the Top 10 global records (JIN & LANG Kun & Shining, The Emperor Qianlong’s review of the Grand Parade of Troops) when it fetched $7.7m, at Sotheby’s in Hong-Kong). The following year, five Chinese masters joined the Top10, ousting MICHELANGELO, LEONARDO DA VINCI, ANDREA DEL SARTO, Francisco José DE GOYA Y LUCIENTES, William BLAKE and Rembrandt … all of whom were considered permanent members!

We owe this upheaval of the old master market to a series of extraordinary sales in Peking and Hong Kong in May, June and November 2009 (at Poly International Auction, Beijing Council International Auctions and Sotheby’s Hong Kong). Poly International’s sale on 22 November 2009 recorded three of the world’s 20 best ever results in this segments. The highpoint of the sale was a nearly 6-metre long scroll by Wu Bin entitled Eighteen arhats which fetched five times its high estimate when it sold for an equivalent sum of $22.1m. A second record was hammered at CNY 97m ($14.2m) for a Letter leaf of calligraphy by ZENG Gong (Song Dynasty, 960-1279) and a third work, a scroll entitled Landscape and Calligraphy by SHI Tao (1642-1707), fetched CNY 24m ($3.5m). For several days, Wu Bin and Zeng Gong carried the worlds best two auction results in the entire old masters drawing segment.

After the bubble on contemporary Chinese art, the prices of traditional works have suddenly started to rocket. This trend should be watched carefully because although it looks like a local phenomenon for the time being, it is bound to spread around the world… particularly with the assistance of Christie’s and Sotheby’s…