The Secret to Getting a 99,766 Percent Return in the Art Market

Hint: Discover a hidden masterpiece

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable

Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Near the end of the Old Master Paintings sale at Sotheby’s New York today, a small painting of a church steeple and fields by the British artist John Constable flashed on the screen. 

Bidding for the painting began slowly—it started at $1 million and went upward in $100,000 increments—but the pace picked up when two anonymous phone bidders faced off, driving the price well past its presale estimate of $2 million to $3 million. By the time it hit $4 million the room had become totally silent, and it was then that one untraceable male voice in the back muttered, “Someone at Christie’s is going to get fired.”

Normally, when a painting does well at Sotheby’s, the only reaction from its archrival Christie’s is off-the-record disdain (or at most, professional jealousy for missing out on the consignment in the first place). In the case of the Constable, titled Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, the problem for Christie’s is that it had in fact been consigned to them just two years ago. And they’d sold it, too … for just $5,212, or approximately 57,559 percent less than Sotheby’s presale high estimate.

Come again? 

Even in today’s white-hot art market, the only way for a painting to realize that percentage increase in value in so short a time is if it’s “discovered” as a painting by a different artist entirely, and that’s exactly what happened with the Constable.

It was sold in a 2013 estate sale of Hambleden Manor in Buckinghamshire by Maria Carmela Viscountess Hambleden, then 83, who had decided to liquidate the contents of her house and move into a nearby cottage. The painting was auctioned as a “Follower of John Constable” and carried an estimate of £500 pounds to £800. Its final sale price was £3,500. 

Sotheby’s catalogue states that at the time of the purchase, the painting was “heavily retouched with a dark and opaque pigment which probably dated to the late 19th or early 20th century, in a misguided attempt to ‘finish’ the painting.” After the painting was cleaned by the new buyer, Sotheby’s says, “the Constable’s original and brilliant conception has been once again revealed.”

Christie’s, however, has a different take on things. In statement today, a spokesperson said, “We are aware that Sotheby’s have sold this work as by Constable. We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a “follower of.” We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”

The two phone bidders at Sotheby’s today clearly had no such reservations. The hammer price was $4.5 million, which—with the buyer’s premium—came to a final sale of $5.2 million.

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