London poised to regain Old Master crown from New York

Sotheby’s offers its most valuable Old Master sale in London, and a Guardi painting at Christie’s could break records


The fracturing of the New York Old Master auction market with Christie’s moving away from the traditional major sales in January has given London a chance to become once again the world’s Old Master capital. This year, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have produced formidable catalogues for their July sales.

The Sotheby’s sale (5 July) is the stronger of the two, and in terms of the pre-sale estimate of £48.4m to £73.5m, it is the most valuable it has ever offered in London. Much of this is due to J.M.W. Turner’s view of Ehrenbreitstein in Germany, one of only a handful of large-scale oil landscapes by Turner left in private hands and estimated at £15m to £25m. It should match the performance of the last two major Turners sold by Sotheby’s: Rome from Mount Aventine (1835) at £30.3m and Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino (1839) at £29.7m. These both exceeded their estimates of £15m to £20m and £12m to £18m respectively.

Turner used to say, when one of his pictures was sold, “I have lost one of my children”, and the pattern with these major Turners is that they leave the UK. We should probably expect Ehrenbreitstein to go outside the UK, too, not least because the post-Brexit referendum pound has made the country cheaper for overseas buyers. If you are looking for a Turner, but do not have at least £15m to spend, then Sotheby’s drawings sale (also 5 July) has two of his views of Lake Como on offer (est £12,000-£18,000 each).

Elsewhere in the Sotheby’s evening sale is a fine Ecce Homo (around 1660-70) by Murillo, which is estimated at £2m to £3m. Formerly in the Cook collection, it was last at auction in 2005 at Christie’s, where it made £2.47m (with premium), setting a new record for Murillo. Will the owner get their money back?

No less interesting, but significantly cheaper, is a full-length portrait from 1677 by Murillo at Christie’s day sale (7 July) estimated at £80,000 to £120,000. It is a rare thing: one of only a dozen full-length portraits by an artist better known for his religious pictures. This is another Murillo auction reappearance, last seen in New York in 2011, where it made $182,500 (with premium). Similarly, a portrait by Allan Ramsay of Anne, Lady North (around 1740-97, est £150,000-£250,000), in Christie’s evening sale (6 July) was last seen soaring above its low estimate of £15,000 to £20,000 to make £421,250 (with premium) in 2008—all of which tells us that art is often impossible to value.

The highlight of the week at Christie’s is a picture that has never been to auction before: a large Venetian scene (around 1765) by Francesco Guardi. This is described as “estimate on request”, but is expected to make in the region of £25m. The painting ticks every box for Venetian Vedute collectors: it shows the Rialto Bridge, with the busy Grand Canal leading up to it, and is described by Christie’s as “impeccably preserved”. The painting’s pendant, showing the Rialto from the other side, was sold by Sotheby’s in 2011 for £26.7m.