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A sentiment or a new trend for Old Masters?

On June 28th, 2019, the summer sale at Schuler Auktionen became an international news sensation. A 1000-fold excess of the estimate occurred at the Swiss auction house when the painting in the manner of Botticelli, initially valued at CHF 5,000-7,000, sold for CHF 6,400,000 (excluding the buyer’s premium).

Portrait of a young man in the style of Sandro Botticelli
“Portrait of a young man”
in the manner of Sandro Botticelli (Florence, 1445 – Florence, 1510).
Oil on wood panel. 53*33,5 cm.

“There were 13 phone bidders. The attendees in the hall were stunned and couldn’t trust their ears. The atmosphere was very calm and focused as the bidding went on”, says Michael Abegg, General Manager, Schuler Auktionen.

The final bid during the auction came “from abroad” and marked a price record at Schuler Auktionen since 1984, when the auction house was founded.

The current highest price for Botticelli was achieved at Christie’s in 2013 when “The Rockefeller Madonna” was sold for $10,442,500 (including the buyer’s premium). The previous price record for a work attributed to Botticelli was achieved in 2006 when “Madonna and Child, with a pomegranate, in an alcove with roses behind” was also sold at Christie’s for £3,816,000 (including the buyer’s premium).

Certainly, the owners in the provenance play an important part in the value of an artwork like in the case of “The Rockefeller Madonna”. However, other key factors need to be considered.

“Condition, quality, rarity, aesthetic nature, freshness to the market and provenance are all factors that influence the value of a painting at auction”, says Alan Wintermute, Senior Specialist, Old Master Paintings, Christie’s.

Besides the aforementioned objective factors, which determine the market price of an artwork, individual preferences of bidders bring randomness to the auction results. The portrait sold at the Swiss auction went through severe restorations, which influenced the estimate. The auction outcome shows the bidders presumed that the layers of the painting hid original Botticelli artwork.

“As the research report clearly states, the painting dates from ca. 1500, but has been restored heavily several times. So what you can still see is probably not painted by Botticelli himself. Accordingly, it is very uncertain how much of the original portrait still remains. Therefore, our experts fixed an appropriate estimate. But as all the bidders examined the painting very thoroughly, the buyer apparently felt that there is still some original brushwork underneath all the layers of restoration”, says Michael Abegg.

A new trend or a unique case? Each auction outcome should primarily be regarded as an individual case rather than considered reflective of a general market trend following subjective circumstances that may affect a sale result. With potentially so many undiscovered paintings in a similar condition as the painting sold at Schuler Auktionen still in existence, this sensational sale is nevertheless unlikely to leverage further customer demand for the Old Master genre or prices for paintings attributed to Botticelli or his workshop.

“Newsworthy sales such as this always attract quite a bit of attention, which is never a bad thing for the industry, especially for the genre of Old Masters. In the general sense, any raised awareness or memorable discovery can help to elevate sentiment towards the genre though, I believe any direct correlation to measurable and positive impact is extremely difficult to prove. As for how this sale might impact the price of paintings by Botticelli and his workshop, I do not believe it will be quantifiable from a price perspective, though I am sure it will inspire quite a few searches through dusty attics for the next big discovery! The recent sale at Schuler Auktionen is another data point for the trend of works by highly recognisable artists becoming sensationalised and subsequently caught in the cross-fire of heated auction dynamics, and is not necessarily reflective of the broader market”, says Megan Corcoran, Research Representative for Old Master paintings, Art Tactic.

One example of an extraordinary sale is that of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s in 2018, which shows that eventually it did not make any impact on the market of Old Master paintings.

“While the Salvator Mundi has captured the attention of the public and become a significant moment in auction history, it is a singular object and a masterpiece. Therefore, it cannot be compared to other Old Master paintings offered at auctions, and there is no concrete way to track its effect on the market”, asserts Alan Wintermute.

An individual preference and feeling towards an artwork may fundamentally change the course of an auction. It cannot be foreseen at the estimation stage, it goes far beyond the market trends and subsequently affects neither consumer behaviour nor prices.

Sales dynamics on the paintings attributed to Botticelli and Botticelli and studio
The sales dynamics of paintings attributed to Botticelli and Botticelli's studio at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions between 2001 and 2019 in comparison to the sale of a painting in the manner of Botticelli by an unknown artist sold at Schuler Auktionen on June 29th, 2019 (hammer price including the buyer’s premium, USD).

“The highest prices achieved at auction for Botticelli and studio are $9,250,000 hammer in 2013 and previously $6,000,000 hammer in 2006. Just this summer, Sotheby’s in London sold a painting fully attributed to Botticelli (which in theory should be more valuable than artist and studio) for just over $3,000,000 (£2,000,000 GBP, excluding fees). Given this data, some would say that $6,000,000 on an unknown work is too great a risk with not enough upside, while others may say that given the aforementioned trend in the market, it could very well pay off”, says Megan Corcoran.

“Nevertheless, to buy a painting like this for such a high price bears a speculative risk, too”, states Michael Abegg.

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