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July 21, 2008 

Christie’s London held its evening sale of Old Master and British pictures on July 8, 2008, totaling £24,094,750 ($47,514,847). Of 48 lots offered, 31 sold, or 65 percent. Despite the noticeable number of unsold lots, the top end did rather well.

Jean-Antoine Watteau’s theatrically erotic La Surprise: A couple embracing while a figure dressed as Mezzetin tunes a guitar (ca. 1718) sold for £12,361,250 ($24,376,385), more than double the £5,000,000 presale estimate. Thought to be the pendant to a picture now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, La Surprise disappeared during the French Revolution and was only rediscovered, and reattributed, in 2007. The picture shows a couple sitting on a park bench, locked in a swooning kiss, apparently overcome by the music of a troubadour, who sits on the bench beside them. A spaniel at their feet takes in the entire scene.

The sale also set new records for Anthony van Dyck, whose painting of A Rearing Stallion sold for £3,065,250, and William Larkin, whose Portrait of Lady Thornhagh (1917) was bought for £505,250 by Mark Weiss Ltd.

Another top lot was Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Bad Shepherd, a rather stark scene of a well-appointed fleeing herdsman in the foreground, who looks over his shoulder to see a wolf preying upon his flock, which scatters across an arid field. The picture sold for £2,505,250, well above the presale high estimate of £1,500,000.

Sotheby’s London
completed its series of summer Old Master sales on July 11, 2008, with an overall total of £59,468,750 ($117,307,267). According to the firm, the total is an increase of 31 percent over the same sales a year ago, and an increase of 87 percent over the 2006 sales.

Sotheby’s expert Alex Bell noted the "extraordinary breadth of the buyer base -- our sales are now attracting a more diverse and international spectrum of buyers than ever before." And as everyone knows, diversity is the key to success in a turbulent market.

A painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Edge of a Village with Figures Dancing (1616), a tiny (10 x 15 in.) oil on copper, sold for £3,513,250, just at the top of its presale estimate range -- but a price that is nevertheless a new auction record for the artist.

The sale featured several outstanding pictures, which brought top prices. A re-discovered Frans Hals Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen -- it had been sold at a European auction in 2004 as "school of" -- sold for £7,097,250, and J.M.W. Turner’s Pope’s Villa at Twickenham (1808), a pastoral view of the home of poet Alexander Pope, was purchased for £5,417,250. The Turner is thought to be the first work that the artist, then newly appointed a Royal Academy professor of perspective, had signed with the additional "PP."

In all, Sotheby’s London set new auction records for 19 artists, including Aert van der Neer (£2,729,250), Guido Reni (£1,833,250) and Tintoretto (£1,609,250). The vast majority of buyers were from Europe and the U.K. Only 13 percent were from the U.S.

Christie’s International, which is privately owned by French luxury-goods billionaire François Pinault, has announced its total sales for the first half of 2008: a handsome £1.8 billion ($3.5 billion). The total, which includes the buyer’s premium, is an increase of 10 percent over the same period last year, which totaled £1.6 billion.

According to Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman, the results reflect "the ongoing strength of the international art market. . . . Collectors across the globe have remained active and confident, despite more uncertain economic conditions in some regions."

Private sales in the first half of 2008 -- those brokered by Christie’s as well as sales conducted by Haunch of Venison -- totaled £153 million.

For the first half of 2008, London outpaced New York in total sales, notching £837 million compared to £631 million. Sales in Asia and the Middle East jumped by 81 percent, to £179 million, for the first half of 2008. As for key categories, Impressionist and modern is still in first place at £497 million, compared to post-war and contemporary, which runs a close second at £408 million.

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