Old Masters Collect Dust as $42 Million Sales Fall Short

Corrected

Sales of Old Masters got off to a slow start as about $42 million of art from the 15th to 19th century was auctioned in New York.

Christie’s sold $36.6 million, missing its low estimate of $54 million in three sales yesterday. Of the 54 lots in its paintings sale, only 22 were sold. Sotheby’s drawings sale totaled $5.3 million, within its estimate of $4.2 million to $5.9 million.

The auctions, which continue through Jan. 30, are offering about $200 million of paintings, drawings and sculptures. The auction houses are trying to revive interest in what had been the most popular category until the 1980s, when other groups such as modern and contemporary art gained favor.

“It is a contemporary world,” said David Tunick, a New York art dealer. “When someone walks into your house, they’re going to recognize a Marilyn Monroe by Warhol. If they see a small engraving by Durer, you’ll know what it is but chances are your neighbor will not. It takes intellectual and financial courage to spend money on that kind of thing.”

Some top lots failed to sell yesterday. An early painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio of a young boy peeling fruit, estimated at $3 million to $5 million, didn’t find a buyer at Christie’s. Other casualties: an oil canvas of Venice’s Piazza San Marco by Giovanni Antonio Canal, who was known as Canaletto, valued at $3 million to $5 million, and Hubert Robert’s 1774 landscapes “The Canal” and “The Cascade,” valued at $2 million to $3 million.

Caravaggio Question

The Caravaggio “has never been universally accepted as a Caravaggio,” Richard L. Feigen, founder of the New York gallery that bears his name, said before the auction. “If it were an undisputed Caravaggio, it would be estimated at a lot more than $3 million to $5 million.”

On its website, Christie’s said about the work that “while its autograph status has been questioned by some over the past several decades, many scholars support the attribution to Caravaggio.”

A 16th-century portrait of a young man holding a book by Agnolo Bronzino sold for $9.1 million at Christie’s. The painting, one of the most expensive lots this week, was valued at $8 million to $12 million.

Bronzes, Clocks

At its second sale yesterday, 29 lots out of 53 were sold, Christie’s said. An auction of 119 bronzes and clocks from the collection of Peter Guggenheim, a descendant of the Guggenheim mining family, and his partner John Abbott, totaled $11.4 million, in line with its low estimate of $11.3 million. Of the 117 lots offered, 85 sold. The top lot was a bronze figure of Hercules Pomarius by Willem Danielsz. Van Tetrode that fetched $2 million.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s may have their work cut out for them in trying to lure collectors to the category. Old Masters accounted for 10 percent of the value of the art market in 2013, with just over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in sales, according to European Fine Art Foundation. In comparison, a record $2.3 billion of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art was sold in November in New York.

European collectors who favor Old Masters may be sitting out the New York sales because of the euro’s decline against the dollar, Tunick said.

“A dollar sale for Europeans is going to seem awfully expensive, no matter what the prices are,” he said. “Europeans are maybe on the sidelines. It’s a little bit of an awkward moment, and we may be beginning to see it played out.”

(A previous version of the story corrected the number of lots sold in a Christie’s sale.)