Magazine article The Spectator

Moody Markets

Magazine article The Spectator

Moody Markets

Article excerpt

Salerooms

It did not take long for the two fantastical prices of the London summer season to shake the golden apple tree. In July, the previously unknown Rubens of the `Massacre of the Innocents' fetched nearly 50 million at Sotheby's. By October - surprise, surprise - the auction house could announce that it had secured for auction Mantegna's `Descent into Limbo', one of the greatest Old Master paintings remaining in private hands. Belonging to Mrs Barbara Piasecka Johnson, whose passion for collecting is funded by every puff of baby powder, this fragrant masterpiece comes to the block in New York in January with an estimate of $20 million-$30 million. Meanwhile, Sotheby's was also busy brokering its deal to sell the Duke of Northumberland's Raphael `Madonna of the Pinks' to the Getty Museum for just under $50 million, cherry-picked straight off the walls of the National Gallery in London.

That other surreal success of last season was the Jenkins Venus. This life-size marble figure is famed for being the most expensive antiquity sold to an Englishman in the 18th century and was the centrepiece of a sculpture gallery designed by Robert Adam at Newby Hall. Although a quintessential Grand Tour prize, she is no longer deemed any great shakes as an antiquity, given her extensive period restoration. Even so, she became the most expensive antiquity ever sold at auction when she raised 7.8 million at Christie's in June. Last week, the spotlight turned from the Newby Hall Venus to the Newton Hall Athena. Despite her new-found title - a favourite aggrandising trick of the sale-- room is to give a work of art the prefix of a house or collector - a long provenance (essential now for museums wary of illicit trade), and her more or less untouched condition, this country-house goddess proved less Hesperidean apple than wind-- fall. There was not a single bid in the room at Christie's South Kensington. The reason? It would seem that she was simply neither rare enough nor pretty enough to warrant her half-million-pound estimate. That said, most antiquities experts had the Jenkins Venus, estimated at L2 million, down as worth around L500.000

Double-guessing the mood of the market invariably requires as much luck as skill. Despite current economic and political uncertainties, it seems that private collectors are still willing on occasion to part with huge amounts of money. (Last week's evening sales of Impressionist and Modern art in New York alone notched up nearly $150 million. …

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