It's Old Master week in New York City, and this weekend, Old Master paintings will line the walls at Sotheby's and Christie's. A hundred years ago, the Mellons, Morgans and Rockefellers battled for a chance to possess such early treasures. Today, while the contemporary art market rockets ever skyward, the Old Masters market just plods along.
"Old Master prices have remained depressed," said dealer Richard Feigen. "Prices are really lower than they were 15 years ago."
Most of the best older works are in museum collections, of course. But modern billionaires also prefer works by the new "masters," the Damien Hirsts and the Maurizio Cattelans. Collecting contemporary art is considerably easier than buying artworks made hundreds of years ago.
"It takes a great deal of knowledge to collect Old Masters and antiques," said dealer Helen Constantino Fioratti, owner of L'Antiquaire & the Connoisseur, taking a break from setting up her booth at the Winter Antiques Show, which runs Jan. 21-30, 2004. "You have to go to museums and read books. For modern pieces, all you need to know is that a name is hot, and you can speculate."
Even though the Old Masters currently lack buzz, the houses are competing hard for market share. Sotheby's usually dominates the category in New York. Last January, Old Master sales at Sotheby's totaled $31.1 million, versus $11.6 million at Christie's. But Christie's has since made a bid to get back in the game. Last year, the house acquired the prestigious Old Master dealer Hall & Knight, a firm founded by Nicholas Hall and Richard Knight and boasting of galleries in London and New York. Before opening their own shop, the highly regarded Old Master experts were directors of the venerable Colnaghi Gallery in London.
The two principals joined Christie's as part of the deal, and brought along their inventory as well. Both men are now international specialists for the auction house, with Hall based in New York and Knight working from London. Christie's also took over the lease on the former Hall & Knight townhouse on East 67th Street, and is now using the space as a private sale gallery. This week, highlights from the coming Old Master auction, including works by Canaletto, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Francesco Guardi, are installed there.
So far, Hall and Knight have done rather well -- soon after arriving at Christie's, they were important players in selling Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child to the Metropolitan Museum for a reported $45 million. And Christie's has also lifted its presale estimate for its Old Masters auction well within range of Sotheby's. The house says it expects its Jan. 26 sale to fetch a total of $22 million-$28 million; Sotheby's is aiming for $23 million-$31 million for its series of sales during Jan. 27-28, 2005.
Not surprisingly, the auction-house experts are more bullish on Old Masters than some of the dealers. "I've been saying the same thing for the past four or five years," said Sotheby's Old Master painting expert Christopher Apostle. "Interest is strong, but the market is very selective. There are deals to be had in every sale."
Christie's new approach to its Old Masters is clear from the look of the latest catalogue. "We made it bigger to really make a point," said Christie's Old Master expert, Anthony Crichton-Stuart, who is also an English Lord, which is probably a good thing to be in the Old Master business. "It's probably the best sale we've had in a decade."
Top lots at Christie's come from several sources, including paintings owned by Denys Sutton, who edited Apollo magazine for 25 years, starting in 1962. Sutton died in 1991 and the collection has been consigned by Sutton's beneficiary. Sutton clearly knew what he was buying. His panel Penitent Mary Magdalene, attributed to Filippino Lippi, is expected to sell for $800,000-$1.2 million.
Christie's also landed four works from the Hispanic Society of America, the gem of a museum in Washington Heights. Archer Milton Huntington, the lucky heir to a $150 million railroad fortune (in 1900), opted to collect art rather than follow his mogul stepfather into business, and his specialty was 16th- and 17th-century Spanish works. He founded the Society in 1904 and gave it 23 works; four of those were recently reattributed to French and Italian artists, and so the society decided to consign the non-Spanish works to Christie's and will use the auction proceeds for future acquisitions.
Sotheby's has charted a busy week of five sales, including the usual Old Master painting and drawing sales, whose lots run the gamut from Italy to France to Holland, spanning the centuries. One highlight is Pietro Longhi's Ridotto in Venice (ca. 1750s), being sold by a French noble family. The scene portrays a ridotto, or casino, crowded with upper-class Venetians; masks were de rigueur, as was bad behavior. The presale estimate of $700,000-$900,000 should seem like peanuts to any Vegas casino mogul.
The auctioneer has also put together a theme sale titled "The Art of the Enlightenment," which includes 77 lots, largely of 18th- and 19th-century French art. Many of the pricier pictures here are portraits, including large oil by François Pascal Simon Gérard of a duchess with her five children (est. $2,400,000-$2,800,000), and a Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis (est. $300,000-$400,000).
One of the more interesting collections coming to Sotheby's is a cache of paintings, furniture and decorative objects from the estate of Lillian Rojtman Berkman, which goes on the block in a special sale on Jan. 28. She owned a six-story townhouse on East 64th Street, across the street from Wildenstein & Co., and furnished it in a taste so extravagant that it makes the upcoming Trump nuptials look positively understated. The furniture is all gilt and French; the gigantic paintings, with their elaborate gold frames, have serious wall power.
Berkman collected with her first husband, Marc Rojtman, a tractor magnate, buying vast quantities in the 1950s and 1960s, largely from Central Galleries, a New York dealer. Much of what she bought appears to have been reattributed since the time of her purchase. The Central Galleries, which is no longer in operation, was never a premier seller of Old Masters. Yet Berkman faithfully bought dozens of paintings that now seem to be less important than she perhaps imagined.
The sale includes works she bought as by Hals, Watteau, Guardi, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Canaletto, Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt -- all of which are now listed in the catalogue as "in the manner of" or "circle of" or "studio of." To be fair to Berkman and the Central Gallery, in the last 50 years tremendous progress has been made in the attribution world. Experts can leap on planes to compare paintings, there are scientific tests for paint and wood panels, and information flows much more freely.
Yet it raises the question: Did Berkman, who clearly fancied herself a major collector, have a clue she was buying gray goods, even when many of the paintings came with all the requisite certificates of authenticity? Or did she prefer bargain-hunting at a second-tier gallery, searching for paintings that had power if not provenance?
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