Rich Russians Revere Old Masters

Russian-speaking buyers spent more than 15 million pounds ($22.6 million) at an auction as a record number of bidders from emerging economies bought Old Masters. One of these, represented on the telephone, fought off an Asian underbidder to pay a top price of 9.2 million pounds at Sotheby’s London on July 3 for a canvas of St. Dominic by the Spanish artist El Greco, shown here.

The price, almost double the high estimate, set an auction record for the 16th-century painter. The same buyer spent another 3.4 million pounds on a crucifixion scene by El Greco.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network have not spent much time acquiring Old Master paintings.

Though less fashionable than contemporary art, the market for historic works is attracting billionaire trophy hunters. The most desirable Old Masters have a reputation for being a more stable store of value than 21st-century pieces. New buyers are attracted by famous names and subjects with a modern, “crossover” appeal, dealers said.

El Greco influenced Picasso, the Surrealists and other 20th-century artists. The painting of St. Dominic hadn’t been seen at auction before, having been in the collection of the late German philanthropist Gustav Rau.

International Demand

Sotheby’s sale, in line with its upper estimate, raised 35 million pounds with fees from 47 lots. At least eight of these, worth 15.8 million pounds, were bought by Russian-speaking telephone bidders.

Clients from 33 countries participated in the sale with a record number of registered bidders from Asia and the Middle East, said the New York-based auction house. Buyers were found for 79 percent of the lots, slightly higher than the 78 percent at the company’s evening contemporary-art sale last week.

Sotheby’s said that almost 30 percent of the works were bought by clients from former Soviet states.

The other standout result of the night was the record 5.3 million pounds paid for a rediscovered view of Avignon by the 18th-century French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet.
The previous evening, Christie’s International struggled to find buyers for a 52-lot selection of Old Masters.

With a smaller proportion of new-to-the market items appealing to an up-and-coming wave of international bidders, the event raised 23.9 million pounds with fees against a minimum valuation of 29.5 million pounds.

Steen, Canaletto

A painting by Jan Steen of the artist eating oysters was the priciest of the evening’s 16 casualties. Despite being kept untouched in an English country house for the last 250 years, “Easy Come, Easy Go” failed to attract any bidding after being estimated at as much as 10 million pounds, a record bracket for the 17th-century Dutch artist.

Christie’s top lot was instead the Canaletto canvas “The Molo, Venice, From the Bacino di San Marco,” which was pushed by two phone bidders to 8.5 million pounds.

Adar Poonawalla, son of the Indian biotech billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, was in the room and bought two paintings of heads of bearded men. The first, catalogued being by the studio of Rembrandt, cost 59,475 pounds; the second, catalogued as a Titian, went for 781,875 pounds. Both sold for more than estimates.

An English “connoisseur’s” collection of 400 drawings, mostly Italian 17th century, is being offered today at Sotheby’s. Accumulated by the Newcastle-based academic Ralph Holland, these range in estimate from 800 pounds to 80,000 pounds. Only about a third of the 253 lots carry reserves.