For many years, the Old Master auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's followed a very regular timetable. The most important pictures were reserved either for bitterly cold late January in New York or sticky hot early July in London. By contrast, the lesser fall and spring sales were graced by a smaller number of masterworks and filled out with "school ofs" and "attributed tos" -- the forlorn, poorly preserved and frequently miscatalogued pictures that make up the bottom end of the market.
Now, this arrangement may be in for a change. Both houses have begun to make the spring sales a bit more tantalizing by featuring a few exceptional pictures that might normally have been reserved for July or December. Last year, for example, Sotheby's enlivened an otherwise humdrum May auction by including Henry Kravis' delectable portrait of The Baron de Besenval in hisSalon de Compagne by Henri-Pierre Danloux. The late 18th-century picture was bought for $2,472,000 and subsequently acquired by the National Gallery in London.
This year, it's Christie's turn to ignite salesroom excitement. Christie's New York sale on May 25, 2005, is exceptionally strong, due both to luck and to renewed departmental vigor. One picture in particular has attracted interest: Gerrit Dou's Still-life with a Dozing Dog, Pottery Pot, a Bundle of Faggots and a Pair of Slippers (est. $ 2 million-$3 million).
In his lifetime and beyond, the Leiden genre painter Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) enjoyed the sort of international fame and financial success that might have made his former teacher Rembrandt turn copper-resinate green with envy. Specializing in highly refined, small-scale portraits and depictions of daily life, Dou was the first and leading master of the fijnschilder (fine-painting) school of painting, the works of which influenced European genre painting until the end of the 19th century. Dou's works were eagerly sought by every European royal and noble collection, including Archduke Leopold of Austria, Augustus of Saxony, Louis XIV, XV and XVI and the British Royal collections.
Small, exquisitely finished cabinet pictures had been a specialty of such courtly and mannerist masters as Jacopo Del Zucchi, Joachim Wtewael and Jan Breughel the Elder. But Dou, with his exceptional manner of rendering light as well as surfaces, created works of palpable reality. In the pre-photography era, these paintings seemed like windows to a miniature living world. Dou usually played with this conceit, making a specialty of pictures featuring well-dressed people standing at windows or carved niches and engaged in various mundane activities: chopping onions, watering flowerpots, sharpening pens, playing musical instruments or pulling broken teeth.
Dou rarely painted still lifes or animals, so the Christie's panel (measuring 6 x 8 inches) is unusual to start with. But even among Dou's still lifes, Still-life with a Dozing Dog is of a higher level; it seems to be a consciously virtuoso declaration of the artist's mastery of light and textures, from the soft fur of the mutt and the cool glaze of the pot to the palpable brittleness of the rattan and twigs.
Signed and dated 1650, Dou's Dog still life first appears on record in 1780 in the distinguished Pompe Van Meeredevoort collection in Leiden (it could probably be found further back in other Leiden collection inventories). The painting was lavishly praised in the early 19th century by the British connoisseur John Smith, who raved that "it is impossible for painting to be carried to higher perfection than that displayed in this exquisite little picture. . . the skill of this ingenious painter has given extraordinary interest and value to this humble subject."
By the end of the century, Dou's painting had found its way into the Baroness von Rothschild collection in Frankfort -- though by that time, Dou's reputation had lost much of its luster, a victim both of the rising reputations of Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer and the advent of photography, which had sated the public's taste for the small, exquisitely refined and lifelike. Dou's talents were dismissed as superficial, mere "conjurer's tricks" and, although his "clever, patient hand" was still grudgingly praised, he was condemned for having neither "a great mind nor a great heart."
By the 1930s, Dou's reputation had fallen so far that the Alte Pinakothek in Munich de-accessioned a dozen or so prime works by Dou along with those of his best pupil, Frans van Mieris the Elder. Their beauty was deemed artistically insignificant.
It was in this depressed market that Dou's Dog was acquired during a whirlwind European tour by Mrs. Nita Stark of Austin, Texas, from J. & S. Goldshmidt of Frankfort. Like many wealthy Americans with more money than market savvy, Stark came home with a number of optimistically attributed or minor but attractive works and school pictures. But, unlike many of her compatriots, she lucked out with the Dou.
Stark died in 1939, and her husband subsequently became interested in American painting of the Taos school. With his third wife, Nelda, he founded an Art and Cultural Foundation devoted to Western Americana and works by Frederic Remington, C. M. Russell and Georgia O'Keeffe, along with a Theater for the Performing Arts and an extensive public garden in Orange, Texas.
In the context of the rest of the Stark Foundation's artistic holdings, the Old Masters fit in as well as "chalk and cheese" -- that is, they were kept in storage, gradually forgotten and only stumbled upon some years ago by a Christie's representative. Christie's kept close tabs on the property and after several years of Dou-like patience, the auction house was finally rewarded with the consignment.
In between Mrs. Stark's 1927 purchase and the recent consignment, Dou's reputation has once again steadily climbed. He may no longer be regarded, as William Beckford described him, as "the greatest Flemish [sic!] painter in the world," but his finely finished pictures are among the most hotly pursued in the competitive market for 17th century Dutch pictures, prime examples of which are increasingly rare. Interest in Dou has also increased in the wake of monographic exhibitions held at the Mauritshuis, Dulwich College Gallery in London and the National Gallery in Washington in 2000-01.
Relatively few of his works now appear at auction. The most notable of them -- the perfectly preserved, candle-lit Quack Doctor Examining an Old Man -- wassold at the Van Ham Kunstauction in Germany in 2001 to New York dealer Otto Naumann for a record 4,700,000 DM ($2,074,963, well above the presale estimate of 600,000 DM, or $262,043) and then sold again to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth for just under $3 million. In 2003, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, privately acquired Dou's candle-lit Old Woman Cutting Bread for Two Boys (a picture de-accessioned by the Alte Pinacothek) for just under $2 million.
According to comments of one dealer, however, the Christie's picture is made especially attractive by the fact that "it's not a dark candle-light Dou and it doesn't have any old people in it -- it has a sleeping dog! Everybody loves dogs! You couldn't have a more appealing subject for people that have never thought about buying a Dutch picture before -- plus, it's unusual enough that even a museum or collector that has a Dou or two already would want to have this. It's a very special picture and really like nothing else he ever painted."
The picture goes on the block tomorrow, May 25, 2005, at Christie's Old Master sale in New York.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.