Theme Songs

Inside the Art Market: Theme Songs

One had to squint in reading the tiny caption beneath the watercolor drawing by the great English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) illustrated on page 149 of a Christie’s catalogue in mid-April of this year. The tantalizing caption read: “actual size.”  But was this true?

A quick view of the painting’s details on the facing page revealed a shimmering provenance. The picture had first appeared at auction in 1869 at Christie’s London and was continuously owned by the same distinguished American family for more than a century. As the catalogue noted, “The watercolor depicts a view of Brienne, France, the town where Napoleon studied as a cadet at the Royal Military School between 1779 and 1784.” Moreover, the painting was a “recent rediscovery.” All very impressive. But it looked so small.

Indeed, it measured a scant three by six inches. The lengthy catalogue note that followed, with a dazzling full-page illustration of the painting and extended rhapsodies about Turner and his fascination for Napoleon, seemed elegantly to ignore the fact that Brienne was no bigger than a postcard – a postcard with an estimate of $150,000-250,000. One thus had to admire the lavish presentation of this diminutive work on paper in what was a new sale for Christie’s, a major one encompassing Old Master and 19th Century European paintings, many of them heroic-sized canvases, all built around the intriguing art historical theme of “Revolution.”

From that perspective the little Turner watercolor, in its modest but vivid association with the great warrior and emperor Napoleon, fit perfectly this theme of “Revolution,” its stature in the sale thus looming much greater than its size.

Theme sales like this one have become all the rage in the auction world. Looking back over the last two decades one could see this phenomenon coming, and snowballing, as the art world grew and evolved and diversified into the global colossus that it is now.

In the old days, when the art market was dominated more by the trade than by private collectors, auctions at places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s emphasized such traditional fields as silver, porcelain, furniture, rugs, paintings and so forth. These twice-yearly offerings were efficient and predictable, if rather dull and dreary. As the auction houses became more clever about attracting new buyers, like any business they had to think more creatively about branding and salesmanship.

Hence they started repackaging these old generic sales into new, more encompassing and streamlined “events.” For example, the auction season in England each year has often been highlighted by on-site sales of the contents of grand ancestral homes with names like West Wycombe Park and Rainthorpe Hall, with American buyers always active participants. Hence was born a new sale at Sotheby’s New York in the 1990’s called “In Celebration of the English Country House.” The same sort of furnishings and decorations one might encounter at a crumbling manor house in the wilds of Sussex could now be found in the bright, spacious exhibition rooms of Sotheby’s on York Avenue.

Of course, these new theme sales served another purpose as well. As the auction houses were striving to pare down many of these old-fashioned departments like silver and porcelain, they could now consolidate many of them into a single sale, one aimed not at the trade but at private collectors, decorators, young couples furnishing a new home, and the like. Thus, as these theme sales began to spread across the auction landscape, many specialist departments at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s – like paperweights and glass, arms and armor, Judaica, Japanese and Korean art, musical instruments, and all manner of so-called “collectibles” – started disappearing. Works in these areas might still appear at auction, but now more likely in a theme sale, where they would have more color and flash, more dazzle and charm.

The brave new world of the major auction houses in recent years has thus became increasingly focused on such growth areas as Chinese art, Post-War and Contemporary art and jewelry, with masses of specialists deployed throughout the world gathering property for these coveted departments. In an effort to make the sales seem more scholarly and “curated,” the auction houses have coined for them catchy titles like “The Artist’s Muse.” That hybrid sale of diverse paintings and sculpture was intended to encourage crossover collecting of an all-together new sort. To potential bidders the auction house was assuring them: “A Goya can go very well with a Modigliani.”

So we return to “Revolution.” Here was the latest installment in the ongoing evolution of the auction houses in their efforts to bring a global audience of vastly different tastes and interests and all-important new money to their sales. Still, one wondered: was “ Revolution” just another Old Master Paintings sale or something new and exotic? Well, both. While the results were mixed – the cover lot failed to sell, as did the most expensive painting in the sale – the theme worked brilliantly. A lavish reception was hosted by Christie’s during the exhibition, and all of the works looked dazzling and fresh, as if the auction house had invented a whole new collecting category, one both brainy and sleek.

Brienne certainly benefitted from its inclusion in the sale. Traditionally, it would have been sold in a “British Works on Paper” auction in London, one followed mainly by serious collectors in this narrow field. But “Revolution” brought it to a much wider audience. While bidding for it got off slowly and tentatively, things suddenly picked up – thanks largely to the boomerang effect of online bidding – and the little Turner sold for $293,000, above its high estimate.  The winning bidder, somewhat astoundingly, was from Latin America; the under-bidder from Asia.

The owners of the painting, who had been somewhat leery of the “Revolution” idea, were thrilled. Their little postcard had for decades remained unframed, hidden away in a folio of papers in a desk drawer at their home. Elegantly matted and framed in gold, Brienne suddenly exuded impressive wall power and a certain Napoleonic swagger. At the exhibition it easily overshadowed a nearby, and much larger, oil painting by Daumier.

-Ronald Varney

(Image: Photo Courtesy of Christie’s. Joseph Mallord William Turner, Brienne)