PAI’s The week in focus: Out with the old, in with the new

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Canaletto’s Venice, A View of The Grand Canal Looking East with Santa Maria Della Salute. Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

The end of one year, the start of another – it’s always a time for decisions. Should we reflect on the past year’s art scene, its art market, or look forward to the coming one’s? Here we are at the end of a 2019 marked by reports of record art prices in some areas, offset by weakening ones elsewhere.

If we were to focus exclusively on the article by Forbes which lists the single most expensive sale of each one of the past ten years, top-end prices are slipping. Is that due to buyers hanging on to their money, to fewer top quality artworks on offer or to doubts over authenticity? It is only two years since Salvator Mundi was sold on auction at Christie’s for $450m – the most expensive artwork ever at public auction – attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by a string of experts but whose authenticity is questioned by others. Is the work by Leonardo’s own hand or by that of someone in his workshop?

There’s no doubt about the authenticity of last year’s top priced work reported by Art Critique – Claude Monet’s Meules knocked down for $110.7m by Sotheby’s in New York in May. The same publication, Art Critique, is less accommodating about the authenticities of a group of paintings until recently on display at the headquarters of The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund in Scotland.

Three works authenticated by Frances Wildenstein Institute – a supposed Dali, Monet and Picasso and together insured for £104m – have been exposed as the works of America’s top art forger Tony Tetro. They are not copies of originals, but are works that were passed off as being from the hands of the masters. And Tetro’s works have now been popping up for months and months in museums and private collections across the globe. Caveat emptor!

Meules, Claude Monet. (1890) Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Perhaps we can get an idea of the current general trend of one part of the market from an article by Barron’s. It seems that prices guaranteed for post-war and contemporary works at the large auction houses fell by some 18% year-on-year in 2019. These “guarantees” are complicated financial mechanisms, but their lower values are reflections of a slowing art market the publication says. And it’s not only in Europe, the UK or the US where a slow-down has taken place.

Asia Sentinel reports that India’s economic woes and civil unrest have affected that country’s art market with three sales organised by Sotheby’s, Saffronart and AstaGuru not meeting targets and producing “surprisingly poor” results – read prices – for works by Indian artists.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled (1974). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Before we go on, let’s recall the epithet by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr: “It is very hard to predict, especially the future.” With that caution in mind, what is the outlook for 2020?

Arguably, the most exciting early sale to watch will be that of the last altarpiece by Tiepolo remaining in private hands. It is for sale, Forbes and others report, on January 29 at Sotheby’s in New York. Initial price estimates are in excess of $15m. But at the same auction there are works by Canaletto, Rubens and other old masters – all with seemingly impeccable provenances and for lesser price estimates.

Where should you, the serious private collector, turn for old art? Beware of London might be good advice. As The Art Newspaper reports, the UK government has slapped a temporary ban on the export of a Landseer sold for £8m at Sotheby’s in London in July. If the money can be raised to “buy the picture for the nation”, it will not be leaving the Sceptered Isle’s shores. Might the same be the fate of LS Lowry’s The Mill, Pendlebury, not seen in public for over 70 years. It’s on offer at Christie’s in London on January 21 with a pre-sale price estimate of anything up to £1m – well below the all-time records of £5.6m for each of a couple of other works by the artist.

Finally, as the new year launches itself, a piece of happy whimsy. Back in 1997 a work by Gustav Klimt was stolen or vanished from a gallery in Piacenza, Italy and disappeared totally from view. Now read the reports by Art Critique and Robb Report. The painting has just been found by a gardener built into a stone wall at the museum. The theory is that the thief hid it there but, for some reason or another, was unable to collect his loot – and there it rested all those decades.

And on that happy note, our best wishes for the New Year!


If you have enjoyed our coverage or have any suggestions for what you might like to see on PAI in 2020, please email Yuvan Kumar. Alternatively, please feel free to get in touch via our social media streams: Twitter and LinkedIn.