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[Auction Review] Masters Week: Glamour or Alarm?

Updated: May 8

Written by: Haomin Li

Masters Week is more or a less a week of blockbuster auctions at Sotheby’s New York that is dedicated entirely to Old Masters art (c.1300-1800) and art made in the traditions of the Old Masters in the period around 1800-1900. It is important to keep in mind that this category mainly refers to European Old Masters. There are also few North American artists who fall roughly in the aforementioned chronological categories, but they are generally included in Americana Week, a week commonly preceding Masters Week, and other auctions throughout the year. Another sub-market where the concept of ‘Old Masters’ applies is Chinese art, and these Chinese ‘Old Masters’ (although not called as such) are usually seen in Classical Chinese Painting auctions. The most renowned and representative Chinese ‘Old Master’ is Su Shi (1037-1101), a literati artist active in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Now, the auction review officially begins.

Sotheby’s 2021 year-opening Masters Week in New York ended a month ago with stunning results. A series of seven auctions envelopes Old Master paintings, drawings and sculptures, many of which have not been accessible to the art viewing public for hundreds of years. Here, I will mainly review ‘Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I’ (28 Jan. 2021, 10:00 EST), and I will also briefly introduce Pietro (Gianlorenzo’s father) and Gianlorenzo Bernini’s stunning sculpture, Autumn, sold in ‘The Collection of Hester Diamond Part I’ (29 Jan. 2021, 10:00 EST).

During the Auction: Oliver Barker

The ‘Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I’ auction was an all-star blockbuster show; if you watched the auction livestream, you would find the vibe more like an art lovers’ carnival than an auction. The sensational stars, Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt van Rijn, were lined up amongst a great many other household names like Guido Reni, Anthony van Dyck, Rachel Ruysch, David Teniers the Younger, Willem Claesz. Heda, Corot, Bouguereau. Seeing all these names gathered in one place is as if your own Western Art History textbook had come alive! Fortunately, thanks to the auction mechanism, we are able to see all these stunning works (with previously little public exposure) by all these monumental names in Western Art History en masse in one single auction. Rembrandt and Botticelli were, with little doubt, the absolute stars in the auction. Indeed, their works were the ‘Premium Lots’ (only accepting telephone bidding and, when there was no COVID, registered live bidding). Botticelli’s magnificent Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, one of the finest portraits from the Florentine master, soared to $92,184,000 total (Hammer Price $80,000,000 + Buyer’s Premium + Overhead Premium). The price achieved made it not only one of the most valuable portraits of any era ever sold, but also ‘one of the most valuable Old Master paintings ever sold at auction’. Botticelli’s record-breaking moment was truly striking. I still clearly remember what the charismatic auctioneer Oliver Barker said when the hammer went down — ‘Botticelli here at Sotheby’s. 80 million Dollars. It’s yours’. To be completely honest, for an Art History plus Art Market nerd (and that’s me, yes), there is hardly anything else more exhilarating than to witness one of the most amazing portraits by Botticelli gain its well-deserved recognition.

Sotheby’s top-notch pre-sale marketing scheme should not go unnoticed either. Besides Sotheby’s New York, Sotheby’s London and Sotheby’s Hong Kong were also very actively involved in promoting this auction happening half an Earth away, which demonstrates the seamless international cooperation between these three Sotheby’s branches located across the globe in these international hubs for arts. Sotheby’s, furthermore, just like how they readily embraced advanced online auctioning technologies, also utilised effectively ‘new’ media like Instagram. For example, the most interactive (and thus the most fun) marketing feature was an AR effect on Instagram. Any Instagram users were able to add an AR effect named ‘Botticelli’ in their stories, which enables these participating users to put their very own Botticelli in whatever settings they please. I myself put ‘my own’ Botticelli on a café table! Detail of this Instagram effect was considerately made as well — one could easily rotate, move, or zoom up and down this Botticelli portrait however they wanted to. You could observe the painting extremely closely through just a tiny Instagram effect! The CEO of Sotheby’s, Charles Stewart, was (and still is) very approachable as well — he constantly put pictures of fans’ ‘curating’ in his own Instagram stories and posts. The whole marketing scheme was on point and perfectly carried out.

An Illustration of Sotheby’s Instagram Botticelli Effect

However, was everything as smooth and perfect as it appeared to be? Actually, the auction process was quite the contrary of ‘smooth’; it was, instead, very alarming. Three lots were withdrawn last-minute during the auction process, including a Premium Lot, Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels, and Guido Reni’s brilliantly executed Ecce Homo. The biggest stars did not even make the cast. ‘Withdrawal’ happens frequently in auctions; some common reasons are consignors’ last-minute decisions, provenance problems, or outraged public opinions. Since we, as bidders or onlookers, were unable to know the reasons behind these withdrawals in this particular auction, seeing such big names ‘disappear’ definitely induced speculations, suspicions, and anxiety. Besides the three withdrawn lots, 14 out of the 43 extant lots (almost a third!) were not sold, or ‘burnt’. The ratio already disquieting, many of these 14 lots are museum-quality paintings produced by household names — a representative work by Lorenzo di Credi (and assistants), a signature still life by Willem Claesz. Heda, a stunning portrait by Anthony van Dyck, a bucolic picture by Bouguereau, a bravura chiaroscuro composition by Joseph Wright of Derby, and the list goes on. My first reaction after I finished watching the live auction was: ‘I swear I don’t understand people’s taste these days’. Furthermore, a large proportion of the lots that were actually sold only received biddings that barely surpass their lower estimates. One may find the final prices (now listed on Sotheby’s website: look rather satisfactory, but these numbers are deceiving, as they include Buyer’s Premium (about 20%-25% of Hammer Price) and Overhead Premium (1% of Hammer Price).

Although sold at a record-breaking, breathtaking price, Botticelli’s portrait only received two bids from two different bidders (excluding the ‘ceiling bids’; ‘ceiling bids’ are the bids that auctioneers make to arrive at a price just below the reserve). There was no ‘bidding war’ at all — the earlier bidder did not even attempt to ‘re-secure’ the lot. The similarly anti-climax bidding pattern repeated itself in another auction one day after — Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sculpture (estimated: $8,000,000-12,000,000; total price achieved: $8,888,150), the absolute star of the day, had received only one bid (also excluding the ‘ceiling bids’) from one single bidder through telephone bidding before the lot was sold. Moreover, the final Hammer Price at $7,800,000 is visibly lower than the lower estimate. Admittedly, there will be significantly fewer bids for such high-value lots, but, usually, there are much fiercer and tenser ‘bidding wars’. Although I already felt very excited at the moments when these star lots were sold, the biddings could have been much more exciting.

What might have caused these odd and disconcerting phenomena? My theory is the pandemic’s very severe impact. Sotheby’s has obviously done its very best — the marketing scheme was near flawless, the media exposure of the star lots (Willem Claesz. Heda’s still life, Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels, and, of course, the Botticelli portrait) was great, the auctioneers’ manner was dynamic and passionate. The only plausible answer is the pandemic’s huge financial impact. From this auction, we clearly see that COVID’s negative impact is severe and indeed affecting every one…

During the Auction: Telephone Bidding

For those who are interested in watching exciting live auctions, you can tap on the icon of ‘Sotheby’s’ on Facebook and watch live from there. Another path is to open up the tab of the auction on your computer or smartphone to watch it live. The same applies to watching other major international auction houses’ live auctions. Watching a live auction, just like wandering into an auction house, is much easier and much more relaxed than most people think!



Sotheby’s, ‘The $92 Million Renaissance Man & More Masters Week Results’ [URL Link:]; the first and the last pictures come from Sotheby’s website



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