PAI’s The week in focus: our watching brief


Time costs money: The world’s most expensive wrist watch, the one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A (right), sold for $31m.

There is not, and probably cannot be, a single or unambiguous answer to the linked questions: ‘What is a piece of art, what is it worth and will it improve in value?’ But unambiguous answers are sometimes what are needed by art investors. It’s not enough to determine ‘worth’ based on fleeting fashion, for when one pays through the nose for today’s ’in’ object, it may be out of fashion and unwanted when it comes to be sold 20 years hence.

Let’s start with the current drive by auction houses to sell to the newly rich and the newly ultra-rich across the globe and the media reports on recent sales. As Business Report tells its readers, late in November Christie’s sold a Patek Philippe wristwatch for $7.7m in Hong Kong. But here’s the thing, the hammer price for this horological artwork was near the bottom of the pre-sale estimate’s range. And it was just a quarter of the record $31m paid for another (and more-complicated) Patek Phillippe at Christie’s in Geneva earlier in the month. You can read about that one in Asia Tatler.

At first blush, hand-made watches and clocks might not seem to be obvious works of art, the sort of painted or sculpted masterpieces on display in galleries such as The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Louvre in Paris or the National Gallery in London. But they are the works of skilled craftsmen and designers. So, if that stirs your imagination there are more auctions reportedly coming this week.

More auctions coming this week

Watchpro, Hodinkee and Highsnobietyand others report on the coming Phillips sale in New York, while you need to turn to GQ for a listing of other sales in New York, London and Monaco this month. The Phillips sale is of watches once owned by the famous – the likes of Hollywood stars and golf champions – which supposedly adds to their cachet.

Now, perhaps, turn to Architectural Digest and its article on some Frank Lloyd Wright chairs coming up for auction at Christie’s later this week. Or, if you are someone who thrills to news of fortunes from unexpected ’finds’ take a look at the Robb Report and its story of an unknown collection of vintage Jaguar cars recently found mouldering away in an English greenhouse. There are more than 30 of them to be auctioned soon, with some that could be back on the road within a few days after they have been given the proverbial licks of paint and had their upholstery re-stitched.

‘Real’ art? Pre-sale price estimates and prices realised are all over the place. At Christie’s in New York in November a coat hanger, Diego Giacometti’s Porte-manteaux au hibou, was knocked down at a hammer price of $783,000 (including buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale high estimate of $0.5m. Similarly, as Hyperallergic reports, at Artcurial in Paris last week Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting Te Bourao II (The Purao Tree) sold for around $10.5m, rocketing past its estimate of $5.5–7.8m.

Rocketing past its estimate of $5.5–7.8m

On the other hand, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross described as “one of the most powerful and profoundly moving images of the entire Spanish Baroque” – failed to reach its $2.5m at Christie’s Old Masters sale in London on December 4. You can see a pre-sale video of the work here. For an analysis of the entire auction you can turn to the article by The Art Newspaper,which reports that the hammer price for another masterpiece with a religious theme – Giovanni di Paolo’s altarpiece, Saint Clare rescuing the shipwrecked (painted around 1455-60) – was £5.3m, more than three times its pre-sale estimate.

Why are some masterworks selling for record prices and others not attracting interest? It seems that uncertainties over Brexit are taking their toll of the classical art market at present. But then, perhaps, serious collectors might be advised to recall the words of Nathan Mayer Rothschild a couple of centuries ago around the time of the Napoleonic Wars: “Buy on the sound of cannons, sell on the sound of trumpets.”