Notes from the President: The Secondary Market Then and Now

Dr. Elin Lake-Ewald

Ph.D., ASA, FRICS

Each of us finds a way to relax during fall’s frantic art weeks; some eat, some drink, some watch Netflix, some go to the movies, some do what some like to do. I retreat into the past.

Just now I reached blindly into the cabinet in my office with annual auction catalogs. Sotheby’s "Review of 1961-62" and Christie’s “Review of the Year 1962-63” came into my hands. What was happening well over 50 years ago in the art world? These would be all non-American sales.

Sotheby’s London sold Honore Daumier’s "Third Class Carriage," an iconic image, for just a trifle over $100,000. The approximately 10 x 13-inch painting on panel was from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Anson Beard of New York. In the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s New York this week there is an approximately 8 x 8-inch ink, ink wash and conte crayon drawing, "Avant l'audience," from the Collection of Samuel & Ethel Lefrak that is estimated at $100-150,000.

Years ago it was sometimes estimated that the ratio of the value of painting to drawing by the same artist was 4 to 1. Anyway, that’s no longer relevant since it has been 55 years hence and the drawing of two kneeling figures that might have been valued between $2,000 -3,000 in 1961.

A figure on square steps by Henry, 7 ¼ x 9 ¼, bronze, was auctioned off at Christie’s in 62-63 for $7,000 back then, while in the upcoming sale a smaller seated mother and child, 5 1/4 in height, is estimated (again) for $100-150,000.  Both are editioned pieces.

And look what one could get at Christie’s in those years for well under $3,000; a giltwood & inlaid tortoiseshell center table, 57 inches wide x 34 ½ deep, purchased by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for $2,793.

At first glance, I thought the André Derain “Pool of  London” Fauvist watercolor and bodycolor had sold for $12 million, but of course, that couldn’t have been true, not then. The about 20 x 20 signed work actually received $12,632 – that’s thousands – at Christie's.

 "The Pool of London," André Derain

"The Pool of London," André Derain

During 1962-63 Christie’s total sales were $10,500,000, a relatively dramatic increase of $700,000 over the previous year. It was noted in the catalog that there had been a noted shortage of Old Master paintings indicating that the collectors’ funds had increased for what was available.In that year’s drawing sale a caricature of an old man by Leonardo da Vinci, 4 ¼ x 4 ¼, brought $42,630, while Tintoretto’s “Christ at the Pool of Bethesda" sold for $122,735. That was really big money in that era.

Sotheby’s catalog spent many paragraphs discussing the stability of the art market at this time, citing the fact that the art market used to react immediately to stock market, movements, either up or down, but this year it appeared not to have happened. Consignments from the U.S. seemed to help. One, Amedeo Modigliani’s “L’Homme Au Verre De Vin,” painted circa 1918 and about 36 x 21 realized $103,000. I could not help but note that not all work did as well as the auctioneer insisted. Henri Matisse’s "Femme a l’Ombrelle Verte," a beautiful work from 1920, Nice, and from the Collection of W. Somerset Maugham, Esq., 27 x 22, brought only $89,600.

It is a little disconcerting to rifle through these old catalogs and see the magnificent works available in those days, knowing the current prices for works half as fine. I don’t know why I wrote that it was relaxing. It isn’t at all.