The Alma-Tadema’s Curious Result (Spring 2011)

For over a decade, the 19th Century Paintings category has languished due to the departure of several of its most active collectors and a dearth of new buyers. In a stroke of marketing brilliance, Sotheby’s decided to schedule a highly edited, top quality 19th Century Paintings sale during the same week as the Impressionist & Modern Art evening auctions, when numerous major collectors were in New York. Viewing the exhibition, it was easy to imagine that some collectors, possibly feeling out-matched at the evening sale, could see tremendous value in the 19th Century auction’s star works, particularly new buyers with fresh eyes who might not share the biases of a generation of Western collectors raised on the orthodoxy of Abstract Expressionism.
The Finding of Moses, 1904 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the best pictures of its kind, sold for a staggering US $35.6 million (with buyer’s premium) after an elegant couple from Hong Kong sitting in the saleroom pushed a phone bidder to a result of over ten times the low estimate of US $3.0 million. A Sotheby’s specialist, speaking after the auction, thought the painting would have reached US $10 million at best.
Some observers have suggested this is an example of the unpredictable impact Asian buyers will have on the western paintings market in years to come. However, one cautionary note to such thinking is the disappointing outcome of the sale of Victorian Paintings at Sotheby’s London a few weeks later, encompassing art of the same vintage. Extrapolating a few data points across whole sectors does not make for successful handicapping. That being said, we do expect more surprises like the Alma-Tadema in 19th Century Paintings going forward, though perhaps not always of that magnitude. Overall, this is a category with quality works of art that are still under-valued relative to other sectors.

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