Cranach’s $14.3 Million Adulteress Bucks Old Master Slump

King Henry VIII Portrait by Hans Holbein
A portrait of King Henry VIII from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger sold for 965,000 million pounds. Source: Sotheby’s via Bloomberg

A painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder fetched 9.3 million pounds ($14.3 million) at Sotheby’s, helping the auctioneer defeat Christie’s in Old Master sales in London for the six consecutive time.

Wednesday’s sale of the Cranach and other works tallied 39.3 million pounds at Sotheby’s, toward the lower end of the presale estimate. Christie’s evening auction on Thursday totaled 18.9 million pounds, falling short of the low presale target of 31.5 million pounds.

Old Masters are losing luster as prices for the fashionable postwar and contemporary art hit record levels. The Old Master category accounted for 8 percent of the fine art auction market in 2014, down 2 percentage points from a year earlier, according to the European Fine Art Foundation. Contemporary art is the focus of 90 percent of the top 200 collectors, according to a recent survey by ARTnews magazine, and Old Masters are favored by 10 percent, down from 15 percent in 1990.

“All the money is in the contemporary art,” said Richard Feigen, whose New York gallery focuses on Old Masters and contemporary art. “The Old Masters market is not active and if a great work was to come up, it’s more likely to be sold privately than at auction.”

Sales Declined

Christie’s sale represented a 58 percent decline from the equivalent sale a year ago. Of the 48 offered lots, 17 failed to sell including two paintings by Pieter Brueghel II, jointly estimated at as much as 6.5 million pounds.

Sotheby’s total was a 42 percent drop from a year ago, when 68.3 million pounds worth of Old Master and British paintings were sold. Of 57 lots offered, 20 failed to find buyers, while auction records were set for five artists.

The price for Cranach’s work, with a high estimate of 8 million pounds, smashed the German Renaissance artist’s previous auction record of 4.8 million pounds set in 1990.

Painted circa 1525-1528, “The Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth)” depicts a woman accused of adultery sticking her hand inside the mouth of a lion sculpture to test if she’s telling the truth, according to the Sotheby’s catalog.

Several Bidders

Several bidders chased the work until the end, including Sotheby’s clients from Asia and the Middle East, said George Gordon, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of Old Master paintings and drawings. The buyer was a private American collector, according to Sotheby’s.

“It’s arguably the greatest painting of the Northern Renaissance left in private hands,” said Todd Levin, a New York-based art adviser whose client competed for the work and wasn’t the buyer. “The condition was truly exceptional, considering its age.”

The Cranach underscored how far prices for Old Masters have fallen behind those for contemporary artists. While it was the top lot at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, the result was short of the top auction prices of Takashi Murakami ($15.2 million) and Damien Hirst (9.6 million pounds), about half of Christopher Wool’s record and a quarter of Jeff Koons’s top auction price.

A portrait of King Henry VIII, from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, sold for 965,000 pounds, within its presale target range. Prices include the buyer’s commission; estimates don’t.

Castle Howard

The 1542 portrait of the British monarch, dressed in a red garb with fur trim, was one of four paintings in the sale from the collection of Castle Howard, one of the nation’s grandest country houses, according to Sotheby’s. It was painted the same year Henry beheaded his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, a member of the Howard family.

Another painting from the Castle Howard group was Ferdinand Bol’s 1652 portrait of a young boy, said to be the artist’s 8-year-old son. It sold for 5.2 million pounds, surpassing the high estimate of 3 million pounds and setting a record for the artist. The second most expensive work in the sale, it went to an Asian client bidding through Patti Wong, Sotheby’s chairman of Asia.

The Howard family consigned a total of nine works to Sotheby’s, including a Roman granite vase that went for 1.1 million pounds, surpassing its 600,000-pound high estimate. The group tallied 12.7 million pounds, above the combined high estimate of 10.8 million pounds.

“We have seen more and more contemporary and postwar collectors bidding at our sales,” Gordon said. “In the same way, Russia, Ukraine and the Far East are moving into Old Masters.”

At Christie’s the top lot was a coastal landscape with a beached boat by Richard Parkes Bonington that fetched 2.5 million pounds, an auction record for the artist.

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