Mixed start to the year in New York for Old Masters


Religious subjects, battle scenes, still lifes, portraits… Sotheby’s and Christie’s hosted their first major New York sales of 2024 last week, dedicated to Old Master artworks.

Not easy to predict the reception of precious works by Old Masters… From one day to the next, the market has been sending contradictory signals, achieving very satisfactory results and then considerably running out of steam just a few hours later.

On 1 February, Sotheby’s offered several Spanish paintings, including a recently discovered early El Greco; a lush still life by Luis Meléndez and works by Jusepe de Ribera and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Other notable works included a work by Gustav Bauernfeind that has recently appeared on the market for the first time and two rediscovered self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, two giants of Northern Baroque art. Some of the masterpieces sold with a healthy dose of enthusiasm: Gustav BAUERNFEIND’s The Western Wall exceeded its high estimate by fetching $3.4 million, and Carlo CRIVELLI renewed his auction record with his Apostle on a gold background holding a blue book (middle of the 1470s) by adding $300,000 to the high estimate for a final price of $1.5 million.

Salomon VAN RUYSDAEL, Ships on the Boven-Merwede with Gorinchem in the Distance (1659)

However, the majority of the results were lukewarm and sometimes even genuinely disappointing. This was the case for the four works sold (out of five offered) from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which brought in only $1.5 million for the Museum’s Acquisition Fund. The best result for the works the MET put up for sale (and which all therefore enjoyed exceptional provenance) was $571,500, for the Portrait of Nancy Parson by Joshua REYNOLDS. Given the estimate was $600,000 – $800,000, that’s not a very good result. The MET provenance was apparently not enough to push up prices.

Sotheby’s also lacked bidders for the best still-life in its sale. The painting by Luis Meléndez depicts artichokes and tomatoes and it sold at its low estimate of two million dollars when it could have reached three. As for the Ships on the Boven-Merwede with Gorinchem in the Distance (1659) by Salomon VAN RUYSDAEL, it lost value at the price of $1.99 million compared with its previous sale at over $2.2 million in 1995. True, the price of the work in 1995 was fairly exceptional (around four times the estimate) setting Van Ruysdael’s auction record at the time, but two works of the same ilk easily exceeded $2 million in the 2010s.

Indeed, Sotheby’s seems to have suffered the brunt of the indifferent mood during these first major sales of the year: a Rubens Self-portrait as a young man (estimated between $3 and 5 million) and The Holy Family with a Young Saint Jean-Baptiste by Bartolomé Esteban MURILLO (estimated $400,000 and $600,000 and never previously offered publicly) both failed to sell.

Carlo Crivelli, Apostle Holding a Book

Checkered results

From one day to the next, the same artists achieved completely different results: enthusiastic bidding one day… then disappointing the next. This scenario, which was repeated for major works presented by the both auction houses, raised some eyebrows.

On 31 January, a drawing by Anthonius VAN DYCK doubled its mid-range estimate at Christie’s and in the process set a new personal best for a work on paper by the artist at $2.1 million (Portrait of Willem Hondius). However, the following day at Sotheby’s, a larger work – a powerful painted (and not drawn) self-portrait by the same artist – sold without momentum at its mid-range estimate for $2.4 million. Another example involved two exceptional works by Giovanni SER GIOVANNI DI SIMONE that appear to have received completely different receptions from one day to the next despite being of similar dimensions and importance: his The Story of Coriolanus fetched the best result of Christie’s prestige sale on 31 January 31 at $1.56 million. The result is good without being extraordinary since the work sold at its mid-range estimate and its price has not changed at all compared with its previous auction in 2010 (also at Christie’s). But the next day, a work by the same artist – an even denser canvas than The Story of Coriolanus depicting the Triumph of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, peaked at $825,500 when it was presented at Sotheby’s despite being legitimately estimated $1 – 1.5 million.

The good surprises at these sales – those concerning Gustav Bauernfeind and Carlo Crivelli at Sotheby’s (mentioned above), but also the record for a work on paper by Anthony van Dyck and the Artemisia GENTILESCHI canvas depicting Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (which sold for $982,800, almost $400,000 above Christie’s high estimate) – were too few and far between. The prestige market still seems dormant. We shall see if it wakes from its slumber for the major London sales in March…

Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guid, The Story of Coriolanus: a cassone front