Felix Salmon has written a superb post on how to write about art auctions. His Four Rules are:
- It isn't a market for masterpieces - auction turnover has always been skewed towards top lots, so the endlessly repeated claim that only masterpieces do well 'in the current market' is bunkum; 'twas ever thus. The top 20% of lots have consistently made up 90% of auction proceeds.
- Ignore auction records - markets are fickle and a new record for the latest hotshot doesn't mean much. This point is mainly relevant in contemporary sales.
- Adjust for inflation. Inflation is a measure of the value of money. If you want to measure the changing value of art, rather than just the changing value of money, you've got to adjust for inflation.
- Make judgments. That's the most important point. Interesting sale reports make judgments about the aesthetic value of art as well as its market value. Many auction reports just regurgitate press releases and list numbers. The best add insight.
I'd add two more rules:
- Adjust for premium. Estimates are given for the hammer price, to guide bidders. Results include premium, to show how much was actually paid for a lot. So a work that they claim sold for its low estimate might actually have achieved a hammer price nearly a third below the low estimate. The auction houses don't make it easy for buyers with their stepped premiums. They don't provide a simple calculator to help bidders - but I do! Try my Auction Premium Calculator.
- Be very, very cautious of generalising. Sample sizes are tiny and comparisons are inexact. Was that lot unsold because it's out of fashion, or because it's in poor condition? The art market deals in unique items sold in low volumes. Is a particular artist 'hot', or is it just that a few of his best works have changed hands this year? I'm especially wary of comparing the success of Sotheby's and Christie's. You're comparing a sample of two, where one or two lots or consignments make all the difference. And without knowing the terms they've negotiated with the sellers. there is no way of judging their commercial success as opposed simply to their relative turnover.
Old Master Auction Update
There were some wonderful things in the recent Old Master auctions in London, but the results show the relative irrelevance of Old Masters to the art market. This week Sotheby's sold a Norman Rockwell for more than the entire Christie's Old Master Paintings day sale, evening sale and Old Master Prints sale combined. Bendor Grosvenor noted that you could buy the entire Christie's sale for half the price of Jeff Koons' Orange Dog.
Following my rule above, I've adjusted all of the estimates below (in parentheses) to include the premium.
Most of the lots I thought cheap did well. The Van der Weyden copy made £962,500 (£242,500 - £362,500), the drawing from Raphael's circle made £7,500 (£1,000 - £1,500), the Rembrandt print £104,500 (£37,500 - £62,500) and the Menzel print made £27,500 (against an estimate of just £3,750 - £6,250 that tempted even the impecunious Grumpy). Excellent impressions of great prints by Rembrandt and Durer did well, but a rare and famous Schongauer The Tribulations of St Anthony failed to sell, perhaps because it had a large repair.
There were some bargains in the Christie's drawings sale (Vasari for £6k, Federico Zuccaro for £3k). A copy of A Striding Soldier, a detail from Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina made £52,500 against an estimate of just £1,250 - £1,875. I thought at the viewing that the estimate must have been deliberately low to encourage the punters. It's a polished red chalk drawing, large and decorative in a nice frame. But I didn't expect it to do so well, and it didn't greatly appeal to me. I thought the draughtsman's skill fell short of his ambition, but perhaps I've been spoiled by seeing too many drawings by the greatest sixteenth century masters.
The Jan Brueghel that I thought poor value failed to sell. Most of the highly-estimated pictures sold within estimated range, many at the lower end. I thought the Heem good value at £1,314,500 (£1,762,500 - £2,882,500). It looked much better in real life than in reproduction. The Rembrandt and Studio that I wrote about made £2,546,500 (£2,322,500 - £3,442,500). Seems reasonable for a picture that's at least partly a Rembrandt, but is rather damaged as I discussed in my earlier post.
The Rubens Hercules and Omphale that interested me sold for £398,500 (£242,500 - £362,500). I thought it would have done better, but its quality was conspicuously variable and parts were quite weak. This Rubens portrait, above, made £3,218,500 at Sotheby's, well above its estimate of £482,500 - £722,500. I thought it was good, but not that good! Rubens often amended other artists' drawings, and in this case he's painted over another artist's portrait. It looks a bit like a Velazquez from the X-ray, though obviously there's no way to be certain. I wonder how much of that three million quid is for the anecdote.
The great surprise to me was that the Fragonard sold for just £17,106,500. It's one of the best pictures I've seen at auction in recent years, and it's also historically important. I'm not a great fan of Fragnonard or of Rococo art, but I was bowled over by this. It would have been a better acquisition for the Getty than the tiny Rembrandt self-portrait and Canaletto that they bought recently, and it would be better to acquire this for the nation than the Van Dyck Self-Portrait (though ideally we'd buy both...). It's such a direct and accessible image I thought it would have appealed to a wider range of mega-rich collectors than the usual old master crowd. A lovely Prud'hon portrait that I thought rather highly estimated failed to sell at the same sale.