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    old master madness
Paul Jeromack
Nicolas Poussin
The Agony in the Garden
ca. 1626
$6,712,500 at Sotheby's
Pieter Brueghel,
the Younger
The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow
$855,000 at Sotheby's
Pieter Brueghel,
the Younger
The Triumph of Death
$2,037,500 at Sotheby's
Bartolomeo Schedoni
The Rest of the Flight into Egypt in a Moonlit Landscape
$772,500 at Sotheby's
van Dyck
Anthony van Dyck
Portrait of Eerryk de Putte (Erycius Puteanus)
$244,500 at Sotheby's
Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Sultan Inspecting the Latest Harem Recruits
bought in at Sotheby's
Gaetano Gandolfi
Saint Cecilia
$728,500 at Christie's
Jean-Honoré Fragonard
The Fountain of Love
ca. 1785
$2,000,000 at Christie's
Hubert Robert
"Fantaisie Egyptienne"
$1,102,500 at Christie's
El Greco
El Greco
Saint Francis kneeling in Meditation
$1,322,500 at Christie's
Tomás Hiepes
A Monkey in a Fenced Garden Surrounded by Flowerpots
$574,500 at Christie's
Saint Rufina
$8,912,500 at Christie's
Absurdly successful, the January Old Master sales at both Sotheby's and Christie's demonstrated the diminishing supply of top quality Old Masters and the sheer desperation of people with money to pay anything for what they want.

Old Master week at Christie's totaled $46.4 million; including the sale of Old Master paintings, which brought in $35 million, and Old Master drawings, which brought in $11.4 million. Sotheby's Old Master sales totaled $34.8 million, about $31.3 million for paintings and $3.5 million for drawings.

Sotheby's three-session marathon on Jan. 27-28, 1999, was highlighted by a long-lost Poussin on copper of The Agony in the Garden. Probably painted for a member of the Barberini family in Rome, ca.1627-8. (est. $3 million-$4 million), and recently discovered by French dealer Charles Bailly in a provincial French auction, this work was offered by a "European Financial Institution." Though not one of Poussin's masterpieces by any stretch and in less than perfect condition, the Getty Museum hotly pursued it, only to lose out as underbidder to an anonymous collector for $6,712,500.

The parallel universe of Pieter Brueghel the Younger collectors was well-served at Sotheby's, which sold four of the five works offered by that artist. The best of the lot was Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (an excellent copy of his father's picture in the Reinhart Collection, Winterthur), which sold to London dealer Richard Green for $855,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000). The most expensive was the Triumph of Death (a less fine copy of his father's picture in the Prado), an astonishing depiction of skeletons on an apocalyptic spree. It reportedly attracted a number of contemporary art collectors and sold for $2,037,500.

Best of the Italian pictures was a lovely and rare 12 x 15 in. panel by the 17th-century Emilian painter Bartolomeo Schedoni of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt in a Moonlit Landscape (est. $400,000-$600,000). Despite its desirability, the work had been recently (and foolishly) rejected for purchase by the Metropolitan Museum -- though here it sold for $772,500.

Several pictures in the sale came from a deaccessioning housecleaning by the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. A poorly preserved Guercino Altarpiece (est. $100,000-$150,000), bought as recently as 1984, sold for $90,500. A good Van Dyck Portrait of Eerryk de Puutte from the Lichtenstein collection (est. $70,000-$90,000) went for $244,500.

The biggest disappointment of the day was the failure of Fragonard's surprisingly stiff Sultan Inspecting the Latest Harem Recruits (est. $1.2 million-$1.6 million), which found no takers at what was probably a reserve of $1 million.

Though Christie's sale on Jan. 29 had far fewer lots than Sotheby's (206 compared to 534), the house did have the six or seven pictures that got everyone excited. Top lot was a ravishing 16 x 12 in. St. Cecilia accompanied by an angel by Gaetano Gandolfi in pristine, untouched condition, monogrammed and dated 1791 on the reverse of the original unlined canvas. Quite simply, this picture had it all: a delightful subject of high quality by a newly fashionable painter coated with titillating discolored varnish. The $46,000-$60,000 estimate was quickly surpassed as the work was knocked down to a private phone bidder for $728,500. Underbidders were Alan Hobart, who is an agent for British collector Graham Kirkham, and Dutch dealer Robert Noortman.

Rubbing salt in the wound of Sotheby's Fragonard flop was the record $2 million paid by trans-Atlantic New York/London dealer Simon Dickenson (with Los Angeles collectors Linda and Stuart Resnick the underbidders) for Christie's rediscovered Fragonard Fountain of Love (est. $700,000-$900,000). An enchanting conceit of two Grecian lovers springing though a fog to receive erotic refreshment from a cup of nectar proffered by a mischievous cupid, it is an autograph replica (though in superior condition, despite its coat of yellow varnish) of a picture in the Wallace collection in London.

Equally wonderful was Hubert Robert's "Fantasie Egyptienne" (est. $350,000-$450,000), a unique evocation of a massive pyramid and obelisks seen piercing the clouds. Selling for $85,000 at Sotheby's New York in 1980, it now brought a record $1,102,500 from an anonymous phone bidder.

Christie's sale concluded with a mostly middling group of Spanish pictures that brought impressive prices indeed. A good El Greco, St. Francis kneeling in Meditation, (est. "on request") in exceptionally fine condition sold to the Meadows Museum in Dallas for $1,322,500. A decorative canvas by Tomás Hiepes of A Monkey in a Fenced Garden Surrounded by Flowerpots (est. $200,000-$300,000), which had been unsold at $200,000 at a London sale four years ago ("It's totally Boca Raton," giggled a friend), now rocketed to $574,500.

As for Christie's Velázquez St. Rufina (est. "on request"), let's just say that the fact that a picture in front of you might be matched with a lost painting noted in an early inventory does not a masterpiece (or an autograph Velázquez) make. A good example of devotional hackwork that even the greatest painters must from time to time produce, it depicted the child saint holding two pottery bowls and a plate in one hand and the palm of martyrdom in the other. Though in severely worn condition, flattened by relining and scrubbed of much of its modeling (traces of which were on one of the saint's hands), the tantalizing possibility that this was an authentic Velasquez of the highest rarity worked several phone bidders into a frenzy, pushing the final price to $8,912,500. Art world observers are very anxious to see it after restoration.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.

In the bookstore:

Great Masters of European Painting
by Monique de Beaucorps and Raoul Ergmann
Velázquez: Catalogue Raisonné
by José López-Rey