Exhibition marks an expansion in the private sales department
Sotheby’s London launched its first private selling show of Old Master paintings and sculptures on 5 July (until 16 July). Such exhibitions have become common at auction houses, but until now, the focus has been on the Modern and contemporary market. “Contemplation of the Divine” includes 20 paintings and seven sculptures dating from the late 16th century to the mid-18th century. Most of the works have either been created by Spanish artists or for Spanish patrons.
The majority of the works are being sold by private collectors, many of them also Spanish, according to James Macdonald, Sotheby’s head of private sales for Old Master paintings. It is a change of tack from the inaugural selling show of Old Masters at Sotheby’s New York in January when most of the material came from dealers—a point of contention for some in the trade who say dealers should not offer works to their rivals, the auction houses.
The star of the London show is a gloomy altarpiece by Francisco de Zurbarán from 1655. One of only two left in private hands, it has come from an English collection and is priced around £6.5m. Equally moody is El Greco’s crucifixion, which shows Christ’s spirit leaving his body in a swirling grey cloud (price on request). Painted in around 1576 shortly after the Greek artist arrived in Spain, the work appears strikingly modern—a salient point for Macdonald, who hopes to appeal to the contemporary art crowd.
“Contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are interested in the directness of these images,” Macdonald says. “In today’s commercial world, works like these that take us back to the origins of Christianity and art have a truth about them.”
For those with a sweeter palette there are softer works by Luis de Morales (The Gypsy Madonna, mid-16th century, €650,000) and Sassoferrato (The Madonna and Child, around 1650s, £395,000).
Macdonald acknowledges that private selling shows are a sensitive issue; the general consensus is that the houses are encroaching on dealers’ territory. But Macdonald says Sotheby’s clients appreciate the discrete services offered, pointing out that last year the auction house made $180m in private sales of Old Masters compared with $185m at auction.
Macdonald also argues that the relationship between dealer and auction house can be mutually beneficial. “A lot of dealers like working with us because of our extraordinary network of clients. They bring us fresh material and we help them find buyers,” he says. Toby Campbell, a director at the Old Master dealership Rafael Valls, agrees there are some advantages to Sotheby’s latest selling show. “Any exhibitions during London Art Week help to bolster the strength and variety of what is on offer—be it an auction house or a dealer,” he says.
However, one member of the Old Master trade who prefers to remain anonymous is unconvinced: “There’s little doubt auction houses want to put most of us out of business. The sad thing is, I think they’re winning. But in the long term a contraction of specialist dealers will lead to an impoverished marketplace, with fewer advocates for the Old Master sector, fewer bidders at auction, and perhaps even lower prices.”