This latest round of old master sales in London did not seem to include that many obvious bar-raisers. These days the major auction houses are struggling to offer two high quality selections in London per year, as well as one in New York. Moreover, the July sale tends to be the stronger one in London, as was the case in 2016, when Christie’s sold the rediscovered Rubens “Lot and His Daughters” for $58.2 million.
For many, the standout work of the old masters week was “An Academy by Lamplight,” a 1769 canvas by the British painter Joseph Wright of Derby, estimated at 2.5 million pounds to £3.5 million, or about $3.4 million to $4.7 million, in Sotheby’s Wednesday evening sale.
Eighteenth-century British painting can be tediously formulaic, but Wright of Derby was unusual in combining formidable technical skill with a fascination in the Enlightenment’s spirit of scientific inquiry. “An Academy by Lamplight,” showing a group of young art students gathered around a Roman marble statue of a nymph, was one of the artist’s admired early candlelit subjects, a slightly earlier version of another painting in the Yale Center for British Art. It had been owned by the same English family for at least 150 years.
On the night, the painting was contested by three bidders, a buyer on the telephone eventually prevailing at £7.3 million, or about $9.8 million, with fees, an auction high for the artist. Andrew Fletcher, a senior director at Sotheby’s, said after the sale that all three of the bidders were known old master buyers.
“It’s a masterpiece, and better than the version at Yale,” said Adam Williams, a New York dealer who competed in the room on behalf of an unsuccessful bidder. “It’s such an iconic image,” Mr. Williams said, adding that he had always thought that the painting would sell for about $9 million.
There had also been some excitement a few hours earlier at Bonhams when a medieval “Crucifixion” by Lorenzo Veneziano was bought by a telephone bidder for £1.7 million, or about $2.3 million, against an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000.
Though, like Wright of Derby, hardly a world-famous name, Veneziano was a leading light of the later 14th-century Venetian art scene and this finely preserved, highly characterful 1360s panel, unearthed from another long-established British collection, was deemed by scholars to be an exceptional example.
“You just don’t see paintings like that any more,” said Derek Johns, a dealer in old masters, based in London. “The condition was amazing. It’s been the same since the 18th century.”
Discoveries are one thing; trying to resell old masters is another.
Almost half of the 98 lots at Bonhams failed to find buyers, with a high casualty rate among works that had already been on the market in recent years. For example, “Sofonisba Accepting the Poison,” a slickly executed mythological scene from around 1710 by the Venetian painter Sebastiano Ricci, failed to sell against a low estimate of £60,000, or about $80,000. In 2005 it had been bought at an auction in New York for $168,000.
At Sotheby’s, by contrast, more than half of the 50 lots had not appeared on the market for more than 40 years, which resulted in a healthier selling rate of 82 percent.
London’s credibility as a center to sell higher-value old masters was maintained on Thursday evening when Christie’s offered El Greco’s painting, “Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation,” estimated at up to £7 million, or about $9.4 million.
El Greco, the visionary religious painter of the Spanish Renaissance, is one of a select group of old masters whose work can appeal to contemporary tastes. Last month, Christie’s previewed the “Saint Francis” in the same room in New York as Andy Warhol’s “Sixty Last Suppers.” The El Greco painting, which was bought by the Baltimore collector Stanford Z. Rothschild at auction in 1997 for $2.5 million, is one of several versions of a prime original in the National Gallery of Art, Ottawa. Mr. Rothschild died in February and the painting was being sold by his art foundation.
As has been noted, old masters that have been through the auction mill can be a difficult sell, but since 1997 this version has been reassessed by the El Greco scholar, Dr. William B. Jordan, to the status of the “only autograph replica,” according to Christie’s catalog.
This gave a third party guarantor the confidence to ensure that it would sell for at least £5 million. After competition between two telephone bidders, it sold on Thursday for £6.9 million.
This time round, Christie’s and Sotheby’s pre-Christmas evening auctions of old masters netted a combined £46.8 million. This was 73 percent up on the aggregate £27 million with fees that the two houses’ equivalent auctions generated last December.
Maybe the “Salvator Mundi” — now expected to hang in the Louvre Abu Dhabi — did stimulate some extra interest in this latest crop of old masters.
“It’s only going to be a good thing for the market,” said John Lloyd, a collector and private dealer based in London. “More people will start looking and asking what’s going on. Really good unseen paintings will go for a lot more,” he said.
The mainstream of this market still faces the same old challenges. Most historic pictures struggle to connect with 21st-century sensibilities, and, equally importantly from a market perspective, they can be a problematic investment.
But clearly, after the extraordinary price for that Leonardo, if auction houses can find exceptional works by famous names, the best old masters look set to reach new heights.