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The international art market is currently suffering from a serious case of geopolitical jitters. Results from this week’s Old Master evening auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London seemed to show that buyers and sellers of pre-20th century art are feeling this nervousness.

The happenstance of consignment saw Christie’s offer most of this London season’s few Old Master trophies. Its auction on Tuesday evening (2 July) raised £43.6m (with fees) from just 24 offered lots, around the low end of its £41.4m to £63.8m pre-sale estimate (all estimates are calculated without fees). Only three went unsold; a further three were withdrawn prior to the auction. The company’s equivalent Old Master sale last July totalled £53.9m from a much bigger offering of 40 lots.

Predictably, most of the presale media attention was focused on Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, from Longleat House in Wiltshire, estimated to sell for between £15m and £25m. This small, early painting by the Venetian master, thought to have been made in around 1489, had been stolen from Longleat in 1995. The police recovered it seven years later in a plastic shopping bag at a bus stop in south-west London.

In visibly worn condition, and not representing Titian at the height of his powers, this topped Christie’s auction with a single bid from its third-party guarantor for £17.6m (with fees).

Old Master experts were far more enthused about The Madonna of the Cherries, a rediscovered masterwork by the Antwerp-based Northern Renaissance artist Quentin Metsys. Made in the 1520s, this tender panel painting of the enthroned Madonna and Child with a landscape in the background was thought to have been inspired by a lost prototype by Leonardo.

Metsys’s Madonna of the Cherries was a much-celebrated work in the 16th and 17th centuries that inspired many copies. The original seemed to have been lost, until a “Studio” version sold at Christie’s in 2015 for £254,500. Subsequent restoration revealed it to be what scholars believe is the well-preserved original and it reappeared here at Christie’s with an estimate of £8m-£12m. Backed by a third-party guarantor, this drew interest from an Asian bidder before falling to the London dealers Hazzlit, bidding on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, at £10.7m.

“The impressive sophistication of the subject and extremely high quality of its execution support the conclusion that this panel is the famous Madonna of the Cherries by Quentin Metsys,” says Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty.

Christie’s other big-ticket consignments were a mid-17th century Frans Hals, Portrait of a gentleman of the de Wolff family, from Cowdray Park in Sussex, and the enormous George Stubbs canvas, Mares and Foals in an extensive landscape, dated to around 1769, from an American collection. Given the popular success of the recent Hals exhibition at London’s National Gallery, this might have seemed the ideal time to sell a portrait by the artist that had hung in an English country house for more than 100 years. But demand was measured, the painting knocked down to a telephone bidder within its estimate for £5.7m. The Stubbs, which hadn’t appeared at auction since 1978, failed to sell against a low estimate of £7m.

“It was a good sale, but there were no fireworks. The market is very hesitant. People are careful. Getting things over the line is tough,” said James Bruce-Gardyne, an art adviser based in London. He pointed out that there were more Christie’s staff-members standing in the areas allotted for telephone bidding than there were lots in the sale.

The mood was palpably more subdued on Wednesday evening (3 July) at Sotheby’s, whose London branch is currently in the process of making staff layoffs. A relatively small selection of 32 Old Master and 19th century works was offered and nothing threatened to break the £5m barrier. Unlike at Christie’s the previous evening, there were quite a few empty seats in the saleroom.

The Botticelli panel painting, The Virgin and Child, with landscape beyond, dated by scholars to the 1490s, was catalogued by Sotheby’s as by the artist “and Studio,” as it had been consistently assessed since its appearance in the London-based collection of Alfred de Rothschild, back in the Edwardian era.

As a result, it was estimated at a relatively modest £3m to £5m—far below the levels of a fully autograph work—and backed by a third-party guarantee. Though some knowledgeable dealers felt the painting was more Botticelli than studio, on the night it sold to a single bid from the guarantor for £3.4m.

“If you wanted a ‘Botticelli’, that was a good one. They don’t grow on trees,” said the New York-based dealer Nicholas Hall. “No Russians is a problem,” he added. “Sotheby’s Botticelli would have done better with Russian bidding.”

That Botticelli was not the only buyer’s market deal made at Sotheby’s. A very big, but very majestic set of six mid-18th century Giandomenico Tiepolo frescoes of The Celebrated Deeds of the Porto Family of Vicenza were knocked down to an online bidder for £1.9m. They had sold at Sotheby’s 11 years ago for £2.8m.

Time and again at Sotheby’s, paintings sold below or at the low end of their estimate, or were left unsold. One of the few exceptions was a marvellously atmospheric view of Venice by the British topographical painter David Roberts, which had been a birthday present to his daughter. Not seen at auction since 1881, it sparked competition between half a dozen bidders before selling to the London-based art advisers Beaumont Nathan for £396,000 against a low estimate of £60,000.

Sotheby’s auction raised a total of £12.4magainst a presale estimate of £11.5m-£17.7m,with six lots unsold and a further three withdrawn (including a pair of Canaletto views of Venice, valued at £2.5m-£3.5m). This was quite a comedown from the £39.4m the firm raised from its 49-lot evening Old Masters auction last July.

“Sotheby’s auction was less strong than usual, another illustration of how difficult it is to find material. Sometimes luck works in getting material for sale,” says Johan Bosch van Rosenthal, an Amsterdam-based art adviser who specialises in Old Masters. “But it really is better to hold small, high quality auctions than stuff the sales with middle market material that does not sell,” he adds.

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