Peter Paul Rubens is one of the masters of seventeenth century painting. Known for fluid depictions of religious and mythological characters, Rubens is an essential part of the collection at the Prado and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other cornerstone museums. We were intrigued when one of his notable works, “Portrait of a Lady” was scheduled for auction this month in Warsaw. The painting has not been displayed publicly since 1965.
“Portrait of a Lady,” features a member of the aristocracy in a flowing black dress with jeweled accents. It could be a view of Ruben’s first wife, or a wealthy neighbor, or a member of the Spanish royal family. Specialists in art forensics are uncertain. The well-preserved portrait measures 98 x 74 centimeters. While the work is not a grand canvas, nor an exceptional treasure in the Mona Lisa vein, the fact is that it is a Rubens with hard provenance. These masterworks rarely make their way into the open market. The sale estimate of $4.5-to-$6.0 million seemed low to some dealers.
The portrait actually sold at a hammer price of about $3.4 million, well below expectations, although a record for the local market. This sort of outcome is one that the major auction houses are loathe to discuss. From their perspective, there is no entertainment value or business-development benefit in an auction where the estimate or reserve is not met. But we find the event to be noteworthy; faltering markets provide evidence of economic fault lines.
Among the signals, the Rubens event helps to crystalize the growing, if not ubiquitous, loss-of-confidence we are seeing in public and private markets. One insider to whom we spoke suggested that the sale should never have been held in the Polish capital; Warsaw is too close to a war zone. The proximity argument for a weak outcome may be spurious. Art is a global market; the result would likely have been similar in Amsterdam or Brussels. This auction should have attracted resonant interest worldwide.
The sale demonstrates that post-pandemic optimism is giving way to uncertainty and caution. Investors do not need to look farther than the volatility in the S&P 500 to reach that conclusion. We run the risk of aggrandizing the self-evident.
Bear in mind, though, that private markets are an essential component of the portfolio mix. They afford further clarity on portfolio strategy because of their patient, forbearing characters. Our cut out here is that conserving cash is fast-becoming a universal norm, as relevant for the super-rich as it is for the professional investor. We expect to find similar evidence in markets tied to luxury real estate, lifestyle cars, and private jets. ■
Our Vantage Point: This masterwork sale provides further evidence of a deteriorating global backdrop. While fine art can be a lumpy, if not illiquid, asset class, it easily distills abrupt changes in sentiment among global investors, complementing other market variables.
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