The January Old Master painting sales in New York were as busy as ever, despite the fact that the pickings get leaner each year. Christie's especially had a lot to celebrate, as its sale was its most successful in several years, totaling $21,699,600. The house has considerably strengthened its Old Master department with the addition of Nick Hall and Richard Knight, two dealers who had worked for Colnaghi's and operated their own gallery before joining the auction firm early in 2004.
In addition to a larger catalogue format (guaranteed to wreak havoc on well-appointed bookshelves), Christie's Old Master sale on Jan. 26, 2005, featured a selection of pictures that was more interesting than usual. A number of Christie's best Italian pictures came from the estate of Denys Sutton, the erudite editor of Apollo magazine who died in 1991. Sutton had astutely done his buying in the 1950s and 60s, when early Italian pictures were surprisingly unpopular.
Among the Sutton lots was a fine Crucifixion by the newly identified son of Giotto, Francesco di Giotto di Bondone (est. $200,000-$300,000), which sold for $400,000. A small triptych (in unusually fine condition) of The Madonna of Humility with John the Baptist and St. Catherine by Agnolo Gaddi (est. $250,000-$350,000) sold for a still-reasonable $420,000, and a fine and little-known panel by Filippino Lippi of The Penitent Magdalene Adoring the True Cross in a Rocky Landscape (est. $800,000-$1,000,000), considerably less florid and proto-Mannerist than usual, sold to New York collector Hester Diamond for $2,000,000.
Although 17th- and (especially) 18th-century French painting has never enjoyed the high esteem it once held a century ago with American collectors, some good prices were realized in this category. A Venus Requesting Arms for Aeneas from Vulcan by Carle van Loo (est. $200,000-$300,000) came from the estate of Dallas philanthropist Michael Rosenberg, who had bought it at Christie's in 2000 for $277,500. It now brought $220,000 -- take note, art-investment advisors!
Rosenberg's Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Fascinated Coquette (est. $400,000-$600,000), did worse, finding no takers at $190,000 (having sold for $280,000 at Sotheby's New York in 2000). Far better received were two recently re-discovered works by two followers of Watteau: Jean-Baptiste Pater and Nicholas Lancret.
Pater is usually considered the more facile and inconsequential of the two, yet he was shown at his delightful best in his copper of Les Baigneuses (est. $150,000-$200,000), which brought $260,000, and from Lancret was Le Menuet, a rather appealingly homely young lady dancing with a flower-bedecked swain. Works by Lancret are rather uncommon, and this grimy canvas, last on the market in 1914 and untraced since, sold to New York dealer Larry Salander for $650,000 (est. $300,000-$500,000).
An interesting 17th-century picture was Venus, Mercury and Jupiter by the Nicolas Chaperon, a little-known pupil and follower of Simon Vouet. (est. $70,000-$100,000), Christie's example was extremely reminiscent of the master's work, and was acquired by the Musée du Louvre for $160,000 with a commission bid.
Christie's sale concluded with a sure thing -- The Bacino di San Marco by Canaletto, sold with surprisingly little salesroom activity to a commission bid of $4,700,000.
The Louvre was busy as well at Sotheby's the next day, Jan. 27, 2005, where the museum outbid both the Metropolitan Museum and the Getty Museum to win a rare lead "character head" of The Ill-Humored Man (est. $300,000-$500,000) by the 18th-century Austrian master Franz Xavier Messerschmidt for $4.3 million. Its less dramatic but no less fine companion The Incapable Bassoonist ($150,000-$200,000) sold to Milanese collector Dr. Girolamo Etro for $2.2 million.
Sotheby's lucked out with its large and handsome Baron Gerard group portrait of the Duchesse de Montebello with her Children, which some had surmised might be bought for the Metropolitan in honor of its present director, Philippe de Montebello -- a direct descendant of the sitter. Despite its appeal, the work's enormous height (over 7 in. tall) made it an unwieldy acquisition for most potential buyers, and it sold below its estimate to New York dealer Adam Williams for a solitary bid of $2 million (est. $2,400,000-$2,800,000).
Exemplifying the recent scholarship that decrees that Sandro Botticelli painted some disagreeably ugly works as well as ravishing ones was a fragmentary canvas of Fortune, attributed in full to Botticelli and sold by the financially beleaguered Penthouse Media Group. Estimated at $400,000-$600,000, it sold against its reserve to a single phone bidder.
Most appealing among the Italian pictures at Sotheby's were two recent discoveries, both coincidentally bought by Luca Baroni: a rare military portrait of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni in Armor, with a view of the City of Bologna in the Background by Ludovico Carracci (est. $80,000-$120,000) that sold for an impressive $1,600,000, and an exquisitely finished and luminous copper of The Holy Family with God the Father by Carlo Dolci, which despite some flaking in the cinnabar reds and mustard yellows of the draperies was still in remarkable condition.
Dolci's courtly sentiment is something of an acquired taste, and he remains a curiously underrated 17th-century Italian painter. He worked very slowly and his authentic works are not as numerous as one might think, and he is rather poorly represented in American collections. Here was a great opportunity not taken up by any of them, and Baroni bought it for a very reasonable $280,000.
Another popular Italian picture of a vastly different stripe was Pietro Longhi's The Ridotto in Venice. The gentler chronicler of Venetian 18th-century life has here peopled his view of Venice's most notorious gambling hall with mysterious, elegantly garbed masked figures, presumably there to make assignations. Although an uneven artist (even at his best, his style has something almost naive and simple about it), Sotheby's canvas was an exceptionally large and fine example of his work, selling to Italian dealer Marco Voena for $775,000 (est. $700,000-$900,000).
Equally popular were a number of modestly estimated early-19th-century oil sketches and "snapshots" of Italian landscape views, the most interesting of them being A Young Boy Seated on a Wall Overlooking Capri by the Dane, Vilhelm Kyhn (est.$15,000-$20,000), which sold for $37,500.
Sotheby's totaled $16,804,400 in its afternoon sale of Old Master paintings, and $13,024,800 in its special "Art of the Enlightenment" sale of French paintings.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.