This year, the auctions held during New York's annual drawings week (Jan. 19-23, 2004) offered relatively slim pickings, and it seemed that for the most part the best material was taken home by dealers. The overall sales figures were not bad, however, with Sotheby's selling 75 percent of its lots and Christie's finding buyers for 78 percent of its offerings. "It seemed that the range of buyers was greater," said Nancy Bialler, head of Old Master drawings at Sotheby's New York. "The mood felt good to me."
Certainly, at least some of the European and American dealers, curators and collectors who had congregated in Manhattan for the week -- characterized this time, as has become customary, by a great deal of schmoozing, drinking and malicious gossip -- were actually in town to buy, and to pay high prices for the few items of real quality offered in the salesrooms.
At Sotheby's on Jan. 21, two things saved the day -- a rare and generally ravishing group of 27 natural history drawings (ca. 1568) in watercolor and gouache by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, and a dark horse in the form of a mysterious and exquisite 16th-century drawing in pen and brown ink showing a Landscape with an Avenue of Trees through a Village, attributed to the Master of the Small Landscapes.
The group of newly discovered drawings by the Huguenot artist Le Moyne (Sotheby's was distinctly oblique about the source) is only the second significant collection of works by the artist to have been offered at auction since the British Museum purchased an album of 50 of his botanical watercolors at Sotheby's in 1961 (six botanical miniatures on vellum were sold from the estate of Eric Korner at Sotheby's New York in January 1997). The other major collection of the artist's botanical drawings is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (a group of 59 watercolors purchased in 1856).
The drawings in this new Sotheby's group, like those in the V&A, are thought to be early works dating to around 1568, the period before the artist fled to England in 1572 to avoid the Huguenot massacres. Most have an idiosyncratic informality about them -- Le Moyne's often awkwardly spaced and frequently disproportionate conjunctions of plants, fruits, insects and birds suggest a scientific curiosity ultimately subsumed by powerful artistic forces.
As a group, these sheets produced solid results within or around their estimated ranges, some doing very well indeed. The top lot among them, Studies of Fruits: Apples, Chestnuts and Medlars, sold for an impressive $120,000 to an American private collector, a sum vastly in excess of its $20,000-$30,000 presale estimate. A sheet of Studies with Five Clove Pinks and a sheet of Studies of Flowers: A Gilliflower, Two Wild Daffodils, A Lesser Periwinkle and a Red Admiral Butterfly were among the other top lots in this group, selling for $100,000 and $95,000, respectively, both to private collectors.
But the real mystery piece and surprise highlight of the sale was a delicate 16th-century northern landscape drawing, estimated at a mere $6,000-$8,000, that appears to be stylistically related to the work of both Pieter Breugel and Hans Bol. "We thought it would go higher than the estimate," confesses Bialler, "but we thought maybe to $20,000 or $30,000. It is obviously very close to Breugel. But when we spoke to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann [the Northern drawings scholar] he said early Hans Bol and that's the way I was leaning."
The two final bidders, whose escalating telephone battle certainly raised the hitherto rather tepid emotional temperature in the salesroom, presumably had strong views (and scholarly blessing) on one or the other of these illustrious attributions, but the intense speculation about the buyer that followed the final, genuinely show-stopping bid of $430,000 ultimately proved fruitless. Sotheby's reported that the buyer was a European private collector. Stephen Ongpin, of Jean-Luc Baroni in London, believes, like others I spoke to, that the result "has the feel of two very determined private collectors, and probably not one of the usual suspects."
At Christie's on Jan. 22, again, it seemed that buyers eagerly pounced on anything of real quality in a group of less than stellar offerings, producing a handful of exceptional results. The very top lot was Sebastiano del Piombo's black-and-white chalk preparatory drawing for his painting Christ Carrying the Cross (1520s), now in the Prado in Madrid. The sensitively rendered figure of Christ is thought to have been based on that of one of Sebastiano's studio assistants. The drawing sold to Jean-Luc Baroni for $140,000, a price just below its $150,000 high estimate, and one that is a new world record for a drawing by the artist.
In fact, Baroni was the one who made the original attribution to Piombo (later confirmed by scholars), when he first acquired it back in 1982 at a Paris sale. "It was the one drawing we really wanted," says Stephen Ongpin. "It is a very moving drawing and we were really quite pleased to get it for that price. We thought it would go much higher. Sometimes things just slip under people's radar. It is nice that it is coming back to us."
Another world auction record was set by Pierre Puget's ink drawing showing Two Umbrella Pines in a Hilly Landscape (1680s), probably made while the artist was living in Marseilles. Puget's refined draftsmanship describes an intertwined pair of trees, with a dead trunk on one side, a motif found in a number of his painted and drawn works. The drawing was the cover image on the catalogue for the sale and was also used in Christie's advertisement for the sale in the New York Times, promotional tactics that evidently paid off. It sold to a private collector for $130,000, a sum that nearly tripled its high estimate.
One of the more unusual highlights of this sale was Abraham Bloemaert's pen-and-brown ink drawing showing The Interior of a Stable (the two-sided sheet also has a study of a tree on the verso). Here the artist boldly defined the craggy outlines of wooden posts and beams, a cartwheel, farm tools and other objects left in the unpopulated rustic structure. The sheet sold to an American private collector for $110,000, a sum that more than doubled its high estimate, and reinforced what seems to be the main lesson of the art market in rocky economic times -- distinctive, quality material continues to do well, and sellers must consider themselves lucky to find buyers at all for the rest.
CATHERINE BINDMAN is an editor and art critic specializing in prints and drawings.