In 2019, France's art auction turnover total rose by +18% versus 2018, reaching a record 830 million US dollars and consolidating the country's fourth place in the global ranking of major national marketplaces. But, it isn't yet a direct competitor to the United Kingdom which generated turnover 2.5 times higher in the art auction sector.
“France has several assets though, recalls thierry Ehrmann, CEO and Founder of Artmarket.com and its Artprice department, “and notably its hidden stock of old masterpieces, a number of which usually find their way into the country's auction rooms every year. But it takes all the know-how of an expert in Old Masters to defend their value and their rightful place in Art History. The quality of the work conducted by French art experts is today recognised all over the world.”
From left to right: Cimabue, Le Christ moqué – Le Maître de Vyssi Brod, La Vierge et l'Enfant en trône - Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucrèce. Three major Old Master paintings sold at auction in France in 2019, appraised by Cabinet Turquin
The expert lives at 69... rue Sainte-Anne in Paris
Old Master paintings expert Eric Turquin admits that the sale of the small devotional panel attributed to the Master of Vyssi Brod was probably his firm's biggest success story in 2019. And yet the year was full of excitement as the Cabinet Turquin was deeply involved in the sale of the Toulouse Caravaggio in June 2019 (which finally sold privately), the Cimabue painting in October and even a work by Artemisia Gentileschi in November.
However, the attribution of that small panel to the artist known as Master of Vyssi Brod, a 14th century Gothic painter from Prague, was indeed a veritable tour de force. It took a lot of patient research to back up this delicate attribution, but it ultimately demonstrated the exceptional value of this small painting. Nine bidders competed for it in Dijon and it finally went to the Benappi Fine Art Gallery that bought the work for $6.8 million on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
An intense research dossier was also triggered by the discovery of a bronze bust of Paul Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain, one of Henri IV's Ministers. When auctioneer Géraldine d'Ouince saw it for the first time, she exclaimed “It can't be 17th century... it would be too good to be true... no more exist! …” . Busts from that period are indeed extremely rare, even in the most prestigious museums, and they are totally absent from the market. But, with the help of Elodie Jeannest and Alexandre Lacroix of the Sculpture & Collection appraisal firm (also based at 69 rue Sainte-Anne in Paris, next to the Cabinet Turquin), they were able to establish that the bronze dated from the first half of the 17th century.
All in all, Géraldine d'Ouince recognized before the public sale that the estimate provided in the catalogue – between $550,000 and $ 885,000 – could be substantially exceeded, and indeed the bust of Paul Phélypeaux fetched almost $3.4 million.
The French model
While it represents a niche market in the United States generating just 3% of the American art market's total auction turnover, the Old Masters segment accounts for as much as 14% of the fine art auction revenue in France. Last year, this segment benefited from the excellent work of the country's consulting firms, often involving lengthy research that is absolutely necessary before an auction house can hope to attract informed and convinced buyers.
When an appraisal report is both convincing and conclusive, news of the sale seems to spread almost on its own. The media and the Art Market are fond of stories of forgotten or misattributed art works that gradually recover their rightful places in art history as the research advances and the evidence accumulates. In the end, the technical analyses, x-rays and comparisons with other masterpieces are presented in a sales catalogue… and the work's true identity and history are revealed.
The excellent results hammered in France during 2019 have proved that once an appraisal report has been duly established, the sale of the piece can be held outside the major capitals – in places like Toulouse, Dijon or even in the small town of Senlis – and still attract the world's biggest collectors and museums.
Top 10 Old Masters at auction in France in 2019
1. CIMABUE (c. 1240/50-c. 1302) - Christ Mocked
$26,780,000 - (Estimated: $4,400,000 - $6,600,000)
27/10/2019, Hôtel des Ventes de Senlis
2. Master of Vyssi BROD (act.1350-) - The Virgin and Child on the Throne
$ 6,833,000 (Estimated: $440,000 - $660,000)
30/11/2019, Cortot & Associés, Dijon
3. Artemisia GENTILESCHI (1593-c.1654) - Lucrèce
$5,255,000 (Estimated: $660,000 - $880,000)
13/11/2019, Artcurial, Paris
4. Antonio SUSINI (Attrib.) (1558-1624) - Abduction of a Sabine (c.1590-1610)
$4,985,000 (Estimated: $2,775,000 - $5,545,000)
11/12/2019, Sotheby's, Paris
5. Giambettino CIGNAROLI (Attrib.) (1706-1770) - Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [...]
$4,435,000 (Estimated: $880,000 - $1,320,000)
27/11/2019, Christie's, Paris
6 Ambrosius I BOSSCHAERT (1573-1621) - Cut flowers in a Römer [...]
$3,709,000 (Estimated: $2,470,000 - $2,800,000)
06/19/2019, Fraysse - Binoche & Giquello, Paris
7. Francesco BORDONI (1580-1654) - Paul Phélypeaux [...]
$3,372,000 (Estimated: $550,000 - $885,000)
20/11/2019, from Baecque - d'Ouince, Paris
8. Hans DAUHER (c.1485-1538) - Putti (c.1525-1530)
$2,630,000 (Estimated: $1,120,000 - $1,680,000)
16/05/2019, Sotheby's, Paris
9. Bernardino LUINI (c.1480 / 85-1532)2,534,000 - Madonna and Child with Saint George
$2,534,000 (Estimated: $1,980,000 - $ 2,200,000)
14/11/2019, Aguttes, Paris
10. Antonio SUSINI (Attrib.) (1558-1624) La fortune (1580-1600)
$2,011,000 (Estimated: $1,110,000 - $2,220,000)
12/11/2019 Sotheby's, Paris
Sell or appraise: you have to choose
An appraisal carries much more weight when carried out by an independent firm whose reputation is at stake regarding the objectivity of its report.
An auctioneer who sees a work for the first time is already partly committed to its sale and the quality of his/her work will be measured according to the success of the transaction. Auction houses sometimes give the impression of over-focusing on the marketing and financial aspects of a sale. When Patrick Drahi acquired Sotheby's and appointed businessman Charles F. Steward to its head, it sent out a strong signal about Sotheby's strategy and priorities. In the case of Salvator Mundi, one may wonder if Christie's didn't put more energy into organizing its international tour than analyzing its artistic qualities and questioning its place in da Vinci's œuvre.
For the time being, both Eric Turquin and Alexandre Lacroix seem to appreciate their collaborations with French auction houses, whether Parisian or provincial. There is no doubt these auctioneers benefit from its expertise, knowledge, experience and reputation but, above all from its independence. This avoids certain pressures from the Art Market, in which conflicts of interest sometimes have repercussions... even in the collections of the largest museums.
A pledge of quality
More than twenty years ago, Thomas Hoving – former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – already drew the art world's attention to the presence of fakes in large museum collections. In 1997, he wrote in the introduction to his book False Impression, The Hunt for Big-Times Art Fakes: "In the decade and a half I spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had to examine fifty thousand works in all areas. In total, 40 percent were fakes, or had been restored so hypocritically or so poorly attributed that they were exactly the same as fakes. Since then, I am sure that percentage has increased. [...]
"When art became an increasingly expensive commodity in the 1970s and 1980s, fakes flourished. The young millionaires or billionaires began to covet art as an object of investment, as well as a mark of prestige and social superiority. As the originals were no longer numerous enough, the false Old Masters (or fully repainted) filled the gaps."
The former MET Director lent credence, at least in part, to this explanation: “One of the fiercest of all [fakebusters], the Italian Giuseppe "Pico" Cellini, now in his early eighties and still exposing all sorts of artistic garbage, believes the tendency of most American museums to keep their fakes quiet or secret is due to their having sold out to their wealthy donors and trustees. Perhaps he doesn't exaggerate.”
It is probably no coincidence that in 2019 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was one of the major buyers of paintings appraised by Eric Turquin's independent firm. The French expertise faces a new world demand.
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