The Old Masters Art Market in the Post-Covid Era | Interview with Sotheby’s Senior Director Andrew Fletcher

July 20, 2020 | by

As all of us are, the entire art industry is adjusting to a completely new world, whose future seems hard to predict. Auction houses are reopening their offices and have started facing the difficulties of the post-Covid era. Andrew Fletcher, Senior Director at Sotheby’s London Old Master Paintings department, shares with us some considerations on major changes happening in the Old Masters market.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat, oil on oak panel, 21.8 x 16.3 cm., 1632, est. £12-16 million.

How did your department reorganise and rethink its activity during the pandemic?

We were working on two major sales when lockdown hit: Rafael Valls Online and our April mid-season. The Valls sale was always going to be online only and Raf bravely let us plough on – I think many people would have asked us to pull back and hold off. The gamble more than paid off.  The mid-season sale required far more reorganisation because it was originally planned to be a live sale so we had to speak to each consignor and persuade them to convert to online, and we had to catalogue, photograph and condition report all the works which was no easy feat with only one member of staff allowed in the Bond Street building at one time. We also had to continue working on the major July Evening and Day sales and I think the collection of paintings we have put together in the sales on 28th and 29th is pretty miraculous given the circumstances of the gathering period! We held endless daily Microsoft teams calls which were utterly exhausting but the only way we could communicate in an adequate way.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Lady, oil on canvas, 110.2 x 82 cm., est. £2-3 million.

During lockdown, you held a series of auctions such as The Dealer’s Eye and Refining Taste: Works Selected by Danny Katz, which were conducted online and were organised in collaboration with important Old Masters dealers. Have similar collaborations and the shift to online sales proven successful, and is this something you plan to enhance in the coming future? 

For the most part these online collaborations have been an enormous success. The Rafael Valls sale made £1.6m from a low estimate of £400,000 with all but 2 of the 100 lots finding buyers. In the context of the Old Master market AND the fact that on 8th April, the date of the sale, we were at the absolute peak of the Covid crisis, this was a pretty astonishing result in my view. In the following days we spoke to and agreed a similar sale idea with Danny Katz which we put together in just over a month and found similar success with. Online sales are clearly here to stay. Many buyers have said they prefer them to live sales, due to transparency (we show how many bids there have been and indicate when the reserve has been met) and because of the extra time we give to bidders in the final moments (if there is a bid in the final minute, the bidding extends by 5 minutes) which avoids the mad panic and pressure of the final seconds of a live auction. There are of course some who still prefer live auctions and I hope we will be able to please both, with a mixture of online and live in the future.

Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop, Saint Christopher with the Christ child crossing a stream, oil on panel, 48.8 x 35 cm. (unframed). Property from a Private Collection, est. £60.000-80.000.

Differently from other sectors of the art market, Old Master paintings are often collected by clients with a high degree of expertise, whose decision to purchase a piece might result from close visual inspection. Do you feel that, due to border restrictions, the increasing difficulty for clients to travel and go see lots in person will be somehow detrimental to the market? 

There is inevitably some truth in that, but photography is so good now that it is not so much of a concern as it was several years ago. With the current sale we have also just launched a new feature of a 1 minute film per lot which shows you the work from all angles, close up and from a distance. This, in addition to the other features which we now do as standard (in frame; reverse; scale against a person) give you a great idea of the work of art just from your computer screen or phone. We have also stepped up our travelling exhibitions to get as much as we can to the different Sotheby’s offices around the world.

Within the wide spectrum of national schools and artists treated by your department, are there any that could be considered as safer for investment at present? 

I’m not sure I should go on record as recommending any particular field for investment or it could all end in tears! There are always schools and periods in fashion, and others out of fashion. Some people think buying works from a school of painting that is out of fashion is a good future investment idea but I don’t necessarily recommend this as you really do not know when, if ever, they are likely to become fashionable again. My only rule is to buy either the best, or the rarest. Do not compromise on quality thinking you are getting a better deal in the long run you rarely are. Quality endures best.

Balthasar van der Ast, Still life with a carnation and a crocus, two shells, and a dragonfly, spider and flies, all on a stone ledge, oil on copper, 10.2 x 17 cm. (unframed). The Property of a Gentleman, est. £20.000-30.000.

This year, masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait and Rubens’ rare Portrait of a Lady will be sold at a one-off evening sale alongside important works of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art. Could you tell us a little bit more about this choice?

This has been enormous fun to put together. It came about, of course, because of the Covid crisis and the movement of the marquee New York Impressionist/Modern and Contemporary sales from early May to the end of June. In May my opposite number in the Contemporary depart, Alex Branczik, and I came up with the idea of this joint sale and I have to say I’ve loved every minute of it. We are lucky enough to have paintings by some of the most influential painters in the history of art (Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals) and so to be able to pair them up with those painters from the 20th century who they influenced is tremendous. Rembrandt and the Jenny Saville are an obvious one but frankly there are so many connections through the sale which is, for me, far more interesting as a result than a standard Old Masters sale would have been.

William Etty, R.A., Venus and Her Satellites, oil on mahogany panel, 78 x 110.5 cm. (unframed). Property from a Private Collection, est. £40.000-60.000.

Today, you have opened your Old Masters Day Sale auction. Is there any particular piece you would encourage collectors to keep their eyes on?   

The bidding opens today but it actually closes for bidding on 29th at 1pm. There is a stunning and very reasonably priced Van der Ast (lot 125); a Cranach of St. Christopher with the most fabulous underdrawing (lot 108), also very reasonably estimated; and I love the group of works by William Etty towards the end – he was a (very) well-practised but brilliant painter of the female nude (lots 168-172).









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