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    Making an Old Masters Sale
by Fred Stern
Jean-Baptiste Oudry
'La Retour de Chase': a hunting dog guarding dead game
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Alexander and Campaspe with Apelles, the painter
Il Canaletto
The Grand Canal, Venice looking East from the Campo de S. Vio
The Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster
ca. 1460
Ludovico Carracci
The Pietá
El Greco
Saint Paul
What goes into organizing a successful art auction? We had the perfect chance to find out when Anthony Crichton-Stuart, Christie's senior vice president and head of the firm's Old Master department in New York, graciously offered to enlighten us a few days before his auction on Jan. 27, 2000.

What's more, now that the sale has come and gone, we can compare his pre-sale insights and expectations with the actual sale results (which we're highlighting in italics).

Crichton-Stuart has been with Christie's for the past 11 years, the last six in his current job. What are the ingredients that make for a successful Old Masters sale?

Crichton-Stuart: There are no special ingredients, really. We put out feelers about a year before the sale, to find key collections -- we call them "anchors" -- and we build on them.

In the case of the forthcoming auction [the Jan. 27 Old Masters sale], the estate of Louis Fagon, son of the doctor of Louis XIV, offered a great collection of paintings by Jean Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) still hanging in the ancestral Chateau of Vore. These works testify to a love of the hunt, fishing, dance, music and the theater. The collection also included works of Charles-Antoine Coypel, acquired later by the people who purchased the Vore estate. These paintings served as our first anchor.

Our second anchor turned out to be two great works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo from the collection of M. di Guisepe, an art historian and talented amateur collector. He had turned his Paris apartment on the Rue Foch into a superb venue for such formidable Tiepolos as the Alexander and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles and Rinaldo Abandons Amida. At di Guisepe's death in 1941, his family fled occupied Paris. The collection fell victim to a "forced sale" that raised a pittance. Recovered by the allies and returned to France, the paintings were placed on deposit at the Louvre pending the outcome of restitution procedures, which returned them to di Guisepe's heirs. The Alexander and Campaspe, one of the glories of Italian art, was in the Tiepolo exhibition at the Met recently.

[The Getty Museum bought this painting at the Old Masters sale at the world record auction price of $2,202,500, some $700,000 over the low estimate. The Rinaldo went to the American dealer Otto Nauman for $1,047,500, exceeding its low estimate by $400,000].

The third of our anchors are three Canalettos, each from a different source. We tagged a traditional Grand Canal painting with jewel-like palazzos and magnificent renditions of gondola scenes at $2,500,000. It should do better than that at auction. [It did. The London dealer Richard Green paid $6,602,000, one of the highest sums ever paid for a Canaletto.] The other two Venice scenes represent The Church of the Redentore and The Church of S.Giorgio Maggiore in all their breathtaking architectonic glories. But there are other paintings that belong in your "anchor class."

CS: Yes, of course. One of my favorites is the large oil panel Calvary by "The Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Muenster," which like the Tiepolo, was taken during the Nazi era and was returned to its rightful owners.

Painted around 1460, the panel features two groups of mourners at the cross. Each figure is dramatically delineated with breathtaking precision. The Rhenish landscape adds immeasurably to the painting's impact. We feel it should bring in the neighborhood of $1,000,000.

[Milwaukee collector Dr. Alfred Bader offered $3,522,500 for it, more than $2,500,000 over the low estimate.] Do you aim for a specific ratio of million-dollar pictures to ones priced in medium and lower ranges?

CS: You know, more often than not, a sale takes on a character of its own. We strive for a mix of anywhere from eight to 12 million-dollar paintings, then build a tier of another 80 paintings in the high six figures and the rest is made up of lesser offerings. In a way, it resembles a three-strand necklace. How important in terms of buyers is the American component?

CS: American collectors make up almost 45 percent of the market today. There are between 50 and 75 active American buyers.

What we find particularly encouraging is the number of new buyers, younger buyers... who seem amazed by the relatively low prices in the field, considering the premiums they pay for contemporary masters. Is the interest in Old Masters growing or diminishing?

CS: Oh, it's growing. I would expect this sale to bring in excess of $30,000,000.

[The sale was the most successful Old Master auction in 10 years for Christie's, approaching $40,000,000. World record prices were recorded for Tiepolo and Ludovico Carracci, whose stunning Pieta, purchased by Salander O'Reilly and slated for the Metropolitan Museum, brought $5,227,000, more than 17 times its low estimate of $300,000. A late El Greco of St. Paul was bought by a European collector for $1,542,000]. What percentage of sales would you say are to institutions or museums?

CS: Well, by number I would say five percent of our offerings go to museums and other institutions, but by dollar volume it is around 15 percent. You have two major Old Master sales a year, one in January and one in May. How is it that the January sale is on average twice as successful as the sale in May?

CS: We try to keep them more even, but sometimes there are not enough million-dollar paintings available to meet the demand.

We are fortunate this year, though. In May we will be offering the Old Master collection of designer Karl Lagerfeld. Almost all of his 150 paintings are 18th-century masterpieces, including canvases by Fragonard, Boucher, Philippe de Champaigne and others. It is slated to bring $6,000,000.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.