Record prices for George Stubbs and Thomas Gainsborough last night boosted an $80 million test of the auction market for Old Masters.
The Stubbs fetched 22.4 million pounds ($36 million) and the Gainsborough 6.5 million pounds, helping Christie’s International to its second-highest total for a mixed-owner auction of historic paintings in London.
Older pictures have traditionally been the auction houses’ highest-grossing category. Modern and contemporary works are now more lucrative: On June 28, Christie’s auction of postwar and living artists’ works made 78.8 million pounds, a record for the company in the U.K. capital.
“I’m surprised that yesterday’s taste is still selling at auction,” the London dealer Edmondo di Robilant said. “Though they might not be performing as well as they were 10 or 20 years ago, they’re still finding buyers, usually at prices that are too high for the trade.”
Stubbs’s 1765 canvas “Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, With a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey” was bought by a single bid in the room from the New York gallerist Piers Davies Fine Art. Its sale had been ensured by a third party guarantor. Some dealers said the guarantor was Irish racehorse owner John Magnier. A spokesman for Magnier today said that he neither guaranteed nor purchased the painting.
Stubbs’s 6-foot (1.8-meter) canvas, showing a horse that won 27 of the 36 races he entered, was being sold by the Northamptonshire-based Woolavington Collection with an estimate of 20 million pounds to 30 million pounds.
Lord Cowdray, a member of the family that founded media group Pearson Plc, was another U.K. seller, entering five lots including the 7-foot-high Gainsborough canvas, “Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois.”
Dating from the 1770s, the full-length portrait of the granddaughter of the brewer Benjamin Truman was bought in the room by Harry Smith, managing director of the London-based art adviser Gurr Johns, beating a high estimate of 6 million pounds.
A full-length 1611 Marcus Gheeraerts II portrait of the Countess of Hertford was sold by Cowdray for 1.7 million pounds, again slightly more than the high estimate, to a phone bidder.
“It was a fantastic British picture sale, not a very good Old Master auction,” said London-based dealer Charles Beddington, who specializes in Italian view paintings.
The outstanding Italian lot was Michelangelo’s 1504 double-sided sheet of black-chalk studies of male nudes associated with his lost fresco of “The Battle of Cascina,” valued at 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds. It attracted a single phone bid of 3.2 million pounds, a result that reflected the drawing’s condition, said dealers.
Gainsborough’s 1780 “Portrait of Colonel John Bullock” and Andrea del Sarto’s 1516 “Madonna and Child” were among the evening’s failures with low estimates of 3.5 million pounds and 2.5 million pounds. Both works had appeared on the market within the last 10 years, deterring a limited pool of buyers.
The sale’s total of 49.8 million pounds with fees just exceeded the low estimate based on hammer prices, with 68 percent of 61 lots successful, slightly below the equivalent event last year. Christie’s highest total for a mixed-owner Old Masters offering was 68.4 million pounds in December 2009.
Private bidders were dominant at the sale. Nine artist records were achieved, including 1.6 million pounds -- more than double the upper estimate -- paid by a telephone bidder for a 17th-century Dutch shipping scene on panel by Simon Jacobsz de Vlieger.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)