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|Old Master Paintings 2000
by Paul Jeromack
|I have to say, I'm impressed. Museums are notorious for never getting their acts together in time to bid directly at an auction -- they usually stand by helplessly as a dealer buys something and then offers it to them at three times the price. But the Old Master painting sales held in late January at Christie's and Sotheby's in New York were notable exceptions. Several American and European museums actually prepared beforehand and emerged as victors against a new army of wealthy private collectors.
The contest began at Christie's on Jan. 27. Who could have imagined that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would emerge as the victorious buyer of Ludovico Carracci's Lamentation (called Pietá in the catalogue)? A rediscovered masterpiece of Bolognese painting, this is exactly the sort of picture that the Met desperately needs. Too often I see a picture of this quality and mutter, "this would look sensational at the Met, but of course, they haven't the balls to go after it!"
I'm delighted to be proven wrong! Estimated at $300,000-$500,000, it was finally knocked down to New York dealer Larry Salander of Salander-O'Reilly Galleries on behalf of the Met for $4,750,000 (prices given here are at the hammer, without the auction house commission). Underbidder John Morton Morris of Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox (representing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) looked especially dejected afterwards.
The St. Louis Art Museum bought a jewel-like Perseus and Andromeda for $350,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000). Painted by the late 16th-century Roman Mannerist the Caviliere d'Arpino on a small oval of lapis lazuli, the work is a surprising purchase for a museum, as usually these luscious cabinet pictures are catnip to private collectors. Speaking of catnip, the Los Angeles County Museum grabbed the inebriated Bacchanal featuring a sinewy Bacchus by Sebastiano Ricci for $300,000 (est. $250,000-$350,000).
Nor was the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., idle, buying a delightful street scene by Louis-Leopold Boilly of a crowd watching the Empire equivalent of a game of three-card monte for $600,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000).
Washington was also a contender for a large and rare 15th-century gold-ground Calvary by the Westphalian Master of the Death of St. Nicholas of Munster, but both the NGA and the Munster Museum lost out to New York dealers Alfred Bader and Otto Naumann, who paid $3,200,000 for it (est. $800,000-$1,200,000). Consigned by the heirs of collector Andre Seligmann, the Calvary was one of a number of pictures "appropriated" from the estates of Jewish collectors by the Musee du Louvre after World War II.
Another such picture was the cabinet picture Apelles Painting Campaspe by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. From the estate of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe (est. $1.5 million-$2 million), Apelles sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $2 million against a phone underbidder.
A second, even more beautiful G. B. Tiepolo, a sketch of Rinaldo Abandoning Armida (est. $600,000-$800,000) had been acquired by the Berlin Gemaldegalerie from Cailleux, Paris, in 1979 for $400,000 as a mate to a companion picture it already owned. Obliged to return it to the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs, Berlin did the smart thing -- the museum bit the bullet and bought it back for $950,000.
Finally, a beautiful Canaletto showing a gleaming Church of the Redentore, Venice, sold for $1.5 million, right at its low estimate.
The following day it was Sotheby's turn. The National Gallery hadn't totally exhausted its funds, so it picked up the famous Domenichino owned by financier Saul Steinberg, The Rebuke of Adam and Eve ("I didn't wanna do it! It was her Fault!" "No way! The serpent made me do it!") via dealer Kate Ganz for $3 million (est. $3 million-$4 million). The same painting had been sold by Sotheby's in 1989 for $1.4 million. Although not in the best condition, it was much needed by the NGA for its one weak area in its otherwise superlative Italian paintings collection.
Another reappearance was the Peter Paul Rubens Mars (est. $6 million-$8 million). Fewer pictures have a messier recent history than this one. Previously owned by the family of Samuel H. Kress, it was privately sold by Sotheby's in 1988 to David Paul, chairman of the Miami-based Centrust Savings Bank, for $13.2 million (Sotheby's taking a $1.2 million commission). Paul did not enjoy his purchase long, as the Federal government, investigating the hemorrhage of money at the bank -- which coincided with Paul's burgeoning private art collection -- forced Paul to divest himself of his new art holdings.
Paul later went to jail and the collection (including the Rubens) was bought by a syndicate of dealers, who had been offering the picture over the last decade for prices ranging from $6 million to $17 million. Returned to Sotheby's, the Mars, now carrying the more modest estimate, sold to a phone bidder (underbid by Alfred Bader) for $7.5 million -- still ca. $4 million less than Paul paid for it 12 years ago.
Another curiosity was the Andrea del Sarto Madonna and Child, a panel consigned by an unnamed New England Church, to which it had been donated in the early 20th century as an "old copy." Stripped spanking clean, this rediscovered work by the early-16th century Florentine Mannerist was good but no masterpiece, and Sotheby's high hopes for it went out with a whimper. It nearly failed at $775,000 but was nudged up to sell to London dealer Patrick Mattiessen and Company for $1 million (est. $1 million-$1.5 million).
As usual, Dutch pictures caused the most excitement. A typical Brazilian landscape by Frans Post, complete with palm trees and black natives (est. $1 million-$1.5 million) brought $2.6 million from London dealer Johnny van Haeften. Clearly restocking for Maastricht, Van Haeften also bought Rubens' oil sketch of Nessus and Dejanira (est. $80,000-$120,000) for $425,000, and two teeny coppers by Jan Van Kessel of bugs crawling over a sprig of flowers and gooseberries on a white background (each estimated for $150,000-$200,000) for $675,000 and $575,000, respectively.
Private collectors won out for beautiful cabinet pictures by Gerard Dou of A Praying Hermit (in a wonderful carved floral frame) for $340,000 (est. $50,000-$70,000) underbid by Richard Green, and an enchanting Godfried Schalken painting of a blonde woman at her toilette in a wooded clearing (est. $400,000-$500,000), which despite selling high for $469,010 at Sotheby's London in 1996 now made $775,000 to a phone bidder.
Another reappearance was the nifty topsy-turvy Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of a Fruit Basket by Giuseppe Archimboldo, court painter to Rudolph II at Prague (est. $200,000-$300,000). This had turned up at a Bukowski's sale in Stockholm four months previously, where catalogued as "attributed to" Archimboldo it brought £80,000. Flipped by the clever seller into Sotheby's, it was now bought by New York dealers French & Company for $1.3 million.
PAUL JEROMACK writes on art from New York.
In the bookstore:
New Light on Old Masters by E. H. Gombrich
The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France
Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770
Canaletto by J. G. Links
Andrea del Sarto by Antonio Natali