Tuesday 21 November 2017

When to buy a Leonardo Da Vinci at Christie's (try 1776) by Imogen Robertson

Christie's Auction Room (From the original drawing by Rowlandson)

On 15th November 2017 Salvator Mundi, (very probably) by Leonardo Da Vinci sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $450.3 million. You may have read one of the reports about its rediscovery, restoration and controversial sale and resales - if not take a look at this article in the Guardian, it includes a nifty slider so you can see the effects of that restoration - you may also have picked up on the fact it was bought from an estate sale (pre-restoration) in 2005 for ten thousand dollars, and felt a deep twinge of sympathy for whoever sold it then.

Salvator Mundi - Leonardo Da Vinci (1500)

If that bothers you, my story today might break your heart. Robert Foulis (b.1707) and his brother Andrew were printers to the University of Glasgow and earned a reputation for the accuracy of their printing of Greek texts, and showed considerable critical and commercial sense in their choice of modern authors. In the 1750s they set up an Academy of Fine Art in Glasgow, and made their art collection available to the students who studied there, a collection enhanced with further large purchases of art in 1772. The Academy however seemed to be a terrible financial strain and closed its doors after Andrew died in 1775. 

Early the following year Robert went to London, apparently to sell the pictures. He was advised against doing so by none other than Mr James Christie who apparently told him that the market was glutted with similar paintings. According to the snappily entitled Robert & Andrew Foulis and the Glasgow Press : with some account of the Glasgow Academy of the Fine Arts by David Murray, after expenses Foulis returned to Glasgow with just fifteen shillings of profit and died very shortly afterwards (2 June 1776). 

James Christie
From a print by R. Dighton
(in  Memorials of CHRISTIE’S: 
A Record of Art Sales from 1766 to 1896

Now if Foulis had been trying to sell just one Da Vinci, that would put the pain of the person who sold Salvator Mundi in 2005 into some sort of perspective, but Foulis wasn’t just selling one painting, oh no. The collection he took to London included (according to his three volume catalogue)  SIX works by Leonardo Da Vinci works, as well as numbers of works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens. 

Now it’s true he wasn’t the only one with a stack of Old Masters on hand in 1776. James Christie had in one sale sold pictures by all those artists the previous April, and did so again in March of 1776. In the same issue of the Public Advertiser in which Christie advertised the 1776 sale, Messers Langford in Covent Garden are alerting readers to their own auction which includes Rubens, Rembrandt, Carracci and Titian and Mr Walsh has a selection of Poussin and Corregio up for auction if you aren’t Old Mastered out.

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, March 20, 1775 

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

But… As we all know only too well the closer you look into history the murkier it all gets. I’m pretty sure Foulis didn’t sell his pictures at all. 

Now, it may be that he intended to do so, and heeded Christie’s advice to wait, or it may be his original intention was to make money out of his collection in another way. Here is the advertisement Foulis ran (with minor variations) from 31 January to 26 May 1776. 

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Wednesday, January 31, 1776

There is no mention of any sale here. Instead he is quite explicitly exhibiting his pictures and charging a shilling a time, and also trying to sell his three volume catalogue of the collection. 

It’s true that auctioneers often exhibited works for a few days before a sale, but I can’t see any example where they did so for weeks. Langford charged people a shilling to come and see what he was selling from 1 March 1776, but he probably wouldn’t have had room to do so before then, giving he had two other old master sales in February. 

For anyone who has tried to tempt Londoners to an event, that fifteen shillings profit looks pretty reasonable now. There is no doubt that Foulis was devastated by the failure of his exhibition. His printer gives a rather harrowing description of him returning home to Glasgow, exhausted and deeply disappointed. 

But his paintings were sold in 1776, only it was in December almost six months after Robert died and by… yes, James Christie himself. Here is the notice:

Public Advertiser (London, England), Monday, December 2, 1776

So why were they sold at this point? The new season has begun, but it's only a couple of weeks old, so it's still early for the eighteenth century oligarchs to have gathered, I’d have thought. Possibly Robert’s death had made his family’s severe financial problems acute and they had to sell as quickly as they could. 

The sale realised £381 8s 6d. It’s tempting to insert a snarky remark about Christies having got a lot better at selling Da Vinci’s since then, but something else must have been going on too as Christie’s sale of M. Le Brun’s pictures in 1775 netted £2,142 and Sir George Colebroke’s collection sold for £4,385 17 shillings. 

Perhaps Christie knew the market was glutted, because he’d glutted it himself.

It is also possible that Foulis’ paintings were being looked at with a sceptical eye. Given that there are under twenty paintings universally accepted as by Leonardo known today, it does seem a little dubious that so many drifted through the London art market at this time. If anyone wants to take advantage of this link to the Foulis catalogue, and match his descriptions to a particular painting, I’d be fascinated to find learn more. I'd also love to know what happened to the pictures after the sale.

Looking at various calculators of relative value, that £381 from the sale could be worth anything between forty thousand pounds and four million today. Even if we take the latter figure, that’s still a hundredth of what someone just paid for one rather beaten up Da Vinci.

So next time you timeslip into the 18th century you know where to go for a bargain.


Michelle Ann said...

Absolutely fascinating. I hope someone does some more research on this, as I feel there is at least a magazine article in it, if not a book, about the journey and value of these paintings.

Lesley Downer said...

Very good piece, Imogen - and thanks for drawing my attention to the Guardian piece. Damn - would have bought it myself if only I'd had the money!

Imogen said...

Thank you, guys! It is fascinating and feeds my fantasies about discovering some lost masterpiece in an attic somewhere..

Janie Hampton said...

Brilliant research here! Some great detective work into the murky dealings of art auctioneers. Personally I'd rather have a good poster on the wall, than worry about the insurance for the original. I wonder how often the secret buyer of the Leonardo actually looks at it? And how did he or she come by so much money in the first place?