Calculating Constable

“The Lock” (1824), by John Constable, has been in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection since 1990. Purchased for £10.8m, it was then the most highly priced work by a British-born artist ever sold at auction. It comes back to the block at Christie’s on July 3 with an estimate of £20m-£25m and, if it reaches this, will scoop the same record again, beating Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, sold in 2008 for $33.6m.

But will this wonderful masterpiece actually reap a profit for its vendors? We asked the FT’s finest number-crunchers to calculate, taking into account inflation, costs and other factors, how it has fared as an investment over a 22-year period.

It is important to stress that this exercise is a light-hearted one; we have chosen this iconic picture as an exemplar not just for its art-historical importance, but also because of its status as a price record-holder. We often read (and, at the FT, often write) stories about art as an alternative investment, so this seemed an interesting case to investigate.

It is also important to stress that many of the figures on which our results are based are, necessarily, only estimates. We do not know the details of insurance costs, for instance, or the details of the buyer’s premium in 1990 and (future) seller’s commission. However, the details of inflation rates, opportunity costs such as loss of potential interest and other elements are solid.

This graphic shows the results of our calculations. And the short answer, for those who want to cut to the chase, is that for the vendors to recoup the investment of £10.8m made in 1990, the hammer in July 2012 needs to fall at a mighty £59.8m.

To download an Excel spreadsheet containing the full calculation please click here.

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