Taubman, Wildensteins Art Holdings Boost Old Master Auctions

  • Wildenstein gallery sells $1.2 million of works at Christie's
  • Taubman tally reaches $462 million following Old Master sale

Art troves amassed by former Sotheby’s chairman A. Alfred Taubman and the Wildenstein art-dealing family boosted the Old Masters auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York on Wednesday.

Wildenstein & Co., a gallery owned by the family whose members are fighting tax-evasion charges in France, sold $1.2 million of art at Christie’s auction of Old Master and British drawings. Later, Sotheby’s sold $24.1 million of art from the Taubman estate.

The result of Sotheby’s special evening sale fell within the estimated target of $21.2 million to $30.3 million. It was the last of four standalone auctions from the collection, bringing the running total to about $462 million, or $53 million short of the guarantee Sotheby’s offered the estate. 

Once among the biggest auction categories, Old Masters have lost their luster in recent years as collectors’ tastes have changed in favor of modern, postwar and contemporary art. Christie’s said this week that its 2015 auctions of Old Masters, 19th century and Russian art declined 37 percent.

On Jan. 22, Sotheby’s said in a filing it expected to incur about $12 million in charges on the Taubman sale, including $6 million on expenses and $6 million on the guarantee shortfall. Following the Old Master auction, the company’s estimated guarantee loss decreased to $3 million, according to a spokeswoman. The works unsold at auction will go into Sotheby’s inventory for future sales.

Leading Lot

The Crowning with Thorns by Valentin de Boulogne.

Source: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The top lot at Sotheby’s was Valentin de Boulogne’s 1615 painting “The Crowning With Thorns,” which sold for $5.2 million, more than twice the high estimate of $2 million. Prices include buyer’s commission charged by the auction houses; the estimates don’t.

Of the 67 lots offered, 50 found buyers. While active bidding erupted over works by Bernardo Bellotto and Thomas Gainsborough, prices for many lots fell far short of their low estimates. 

A 1661 painting “A Musical Company in an Interior” by Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh fetched $610,000, not reaching the low estimate of $800,000. The price was about a third of what Taubman paid for it in 2011 at Sotheby’s, when it fetched $1.8 million, according to Artnet.

The 27 Wildenstein works offered at Christie’s surpassed their presale high estimate of $963,000 combined. Many had been acquired at auctions and held for decades. Some have been previously pledged as collateral for bank loans, according to filings.

The group helped Christie’s 131-lot auction tally $3.2 million, topping its upper target of $3 million. Only one of the Wildenstein lots failed to sell.

‘Museum Quality’

Family members Guy and Alec Junior Wildenstein are facing a 550 million-euro ($599 million) recovery order from French tax authorities, according to Les Echos newspaper. Earlier this month, the Wildensteins halted the start of a trial into allegations of fiscal fraud by convincing judges in Paris that a court of appeal should consider whether they can be tried over facts that are also part of a French tax probe.

“There’s museum quality here,” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, president of BSJ Fine Art in New York, who reviewed the filing and Christie’s catalog. “The Wildenstein gallery and name was always in the past highly desirable and status-worthy, but because of their legal trouble it’s now somewhat problematic, which is what makes it a real opportunity.”

Christ appears to His Disciples.

Source: Christies

The group’s top lot, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s chalk, pen and pencil drawing “Christ Appears to His Disciples," sold for $293,000, almost double its high estimate, after being pursued by four hopefuls. The work, the second-most expensive piece at the sale, last appeared at auction in 2001, when it fetched $88,500, according to Artnet.

“It’s a very difficult category to source,” Stephen Brooks, Christie’s deputy chief executive officer, said of Old Masters in a Jan. 25 interview. 

Christie’s scrapped its January evening auction of Old Master paintings in New York, which for years had coincided with a similar event at Sotheby’s. It will be now part of Christie’s new initiative, dubbed the Classic Art Week, in April.

The Wildenstein family, which entered the art trade in the 1870s, is known to have a massive collection. The gallery pledged more than 200 artworks to Christie’s, according to a financial statement filed on Dec. 23.

The gallery, which wasn’t identified as the seller in the auction catalog, didn’t return calls seeking comment. Christie’s declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

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