If Christie's recent sale of Orientalist art was a dud, at least it was an instructive one. Art.view extracts important lessons for vendors in a recessionary market ...
The market for Orientalist art has always been uneven. In the early 1980s prices soared for 19th-century pictures by European artists of deserts and camels and falcons and fairs. Works by Lord Leighton and John Frederick Lewis, so unfashionable in the 1960s, earned stratospheric sums. Then they tumbled, first in the early 1990s and then again now.
Christie’s Orientalist sale in London on July 9th did not go well. Of the 59 lots on offer, 27 failed to sell despite every effort by the auctioneer, Alexandra McMorrow, to squeeze bids out of those attending. It was an afternoon of thin trading, with reluctant bidders and bargain-hunting buyers. The entire sale was despatched to just 14 purchasers.
This past April an 1858 oil painting by Lewis of a kibab shop in Scutari sold for $3m at Sotheby’s in New York. This must have tempted the owner of a meticulous little watercolour study of the same subject (pictured) to try his luck. Although the picture was the cover lot on the catalogue, Christie’s cheeky estimate of £600,000-800,000 was well above what the market could bear. Bidding opened at £300,000 but petered out at £500,000.
Consignments from the Canton Museum of Art suffered a worse fate. The Ohio-based museum offered two paintings, including a saucy view of a harem bath by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Both are returning, unsold, from whence they came.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. In a sale where only five pictures sold for more than the top estimate, one man’s loss was quite visibly another man’s opportunity. Two bidders, both private buyers over the phone from the Middle East, accounted for the purchase of 11 works, spending a little over £500,000 each.
Pedro Girao, representing one of the Middle Eastern buyers, secured the first lot of the sale: a small Giulio Rosati watercolour of a desert encampment, for £25,000, the low estimate. The same bidder proved less sure of himself when “The Perfume Makers”, a sugary scene of two maidens sorting rose petals by Rudolf Ernst, an Austrian painter, came up. Another Middle Eastern buyer, represented by Isabelle de la Bruyere, Christie’s development director for the Middle East, snapped that one up instead.
But Mr Girao’s purchaser returned to the fray minutes later for a Turkish market scene by another Italian painter, Alberto Pasini, which was consigned by a private English collector. Having reached the low estimate, this buyer boldly began calibrating his bids in small £5,000 nibbles. He secured the painting for £310,000 (£375,000 with fees), just above the low estimate. Given that a Pasini scene of an Oriental market sold in New York last October for $945,000 and a picture by him of a harem garden fetched as much as $2.2m in Istanbul in 2007, this latest price was probably a bargain.
Both these buyers were pipped in the room by a young woman representing a client who was determined to acquire two other pictures in the sale. One was a large and eye-catching landscape of camels in the desert, painted in 1883 by Eugen Felix Prosper Bracht, a Swiss artist. Owned by a single German family for several decades, it has a powerful sense of vastness, both of the desert and the sky above. The other work, an 1890 portrait of a caravan crossing the desert(pictured) by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, a Polish artist working in Vienna, conveys that same epic sense of space.
These two pictures were among the five that sold above their top estimates. Their success on a flat July afternoon offers two crucial lessons for vendors in recessionary market: don’t sell unless you have to, and don’t be greedy in setting estimates. If the low estimate is pitched at a high level, buyers sense greed in the air and tend to hold off from bidding. In a buyers’ market, purchasers like to feel they have got a bargain, especially if they are spending a lot of money.